If turnout is comparable to 2016, three weeks from today about 170,000 people will participate in the Iowa Democratic caucus, and eight days after that about 250,000 people will vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. That’s about 420,000 people who will essentially decide the legacy of Bernie Sanders.
Sanders shouldn’t, by rights, even be here. His critics like to point out that he “didn’t collect his first steady paycheck until he was an elected official pushing 40 years old.” In his early 20s, he lived in a “shack-like structure” with a dirt floor and no electricity or running water. At age 32, he was writing bizarre and lurid rants about sex in an alternative newspaper that are shocking even by today’s standards.
He became a candidate for office in late 1971 because he volunteered and no one else did. The far-left Liberty Union party, touting “nonviolent revolutionary socialism,” needed a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Sanders agreed to do it. (Up in Vermont, the party is a venerable, if never successful, institution.) Sanders’s message in that campaign should sound eerily familiar: He lamented that “some people in this country have billions of dollars when other people have nothing.” He received 1 percent of the vote.
For much of his early political career, Sanders no doubt struck people as a kook. Perhaps no city other than tiny Burlington, Vt., would have given him a chance. In 1980, when he first ran for mayor of the town, in 1980, he won by ten votes over a wildly overconfident five-term incumbent who “hardly bothered to campaign.” Sanders broke almost every traditional rule in politics. He started to go bald early, what’s left of his hair always seemed disheveled, his suits were always wrinkled and rarely fit well, and he wore thick glasses, spoke with an even thicker Brooklyn accent, shouted most of his speeches, and went on at length about dry topics.
In short, he could have turned out to be another Jesse Ventura — a wildly unorthodox outsider whom the voters elected on a lark and on whom they almost immediately soured. Yet Burlington residents seemed to like the distinction of having the country’s only Socialist mayor, reelecting him three times. The dirty little secret of Sanders’s time as mayor is that he earned a lot of good will with basic good-government initiatives: “Insurance and fuel contracts were opened to competitive bidding for the first time in years. And the first audit of the city’s $11-million pension fund in 30 years took place.” Wealthy developers and local Republican businessmen such as Tony Pomerleau were pleasantly surprised at how Sanders was willing to listen to their arguments. There were some signs that Sanders’s socialism was more bark than bite, more radical-chic branding than genuine radicalism. (His fans called themselves Sandernistas, and during these years, the local shops started selling t-shirts proclaiming the “People’s Republic of Burlington.”)
But of course, winning over the people of Burlington, Vt. wouldn’t have led people to predict Sanders’s subsequent rise. By any standard, he was among the last people you’d expect to end up in Congress, and he almost didn’t. In 1988, he ran for Vermont’s open U.S. House seat and lost, in what could have been the end of his political career. But two years later — now fully recognizable as the rumpled, hunched-over, hectoring leftist motormouth we all know today — Sanders ran for the House again, in what became a six-way race. The incumbent, Republican Peter Smith, had changed his mind on the so-called assault-weapons ban, infuriating gun owners and their political leaders. This led to an endorsement of the then-independent Sanders by . . . NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. (“The gun vote brought us down,” Smith’s campaign manager later lamented.) Thus, with the help of the nation’s most powerful gun-rights group, Sanders was first elected to Congress. He’s been there ever since.
Democrats who aren’t fans of Sanders point out that over his 30 years in Washington, only 1.8 percent of the legislation he’s introduced has passed. Many House Democrats have never particularly warmed to the man who for so long rejected the label of their party and kept offering wildly unrealistic proposals that were politically toxic in their districts. His stances — voting against the Persian Gulf War, opposing NAFTA — were rarely popular even among Democrats. He frequently clashed with Bill Clinton, offering carefully measured praise for H. Ross Perot’s independent bid for president in 1992, noting, “I have strong, strong differences with Clinton,” and later denouncing the welfare-reform bill that was one of Clinton’s signature legislative accomplishments.
Sanders’s relationship with the next Democratic president wasn’t that much warmer. During the 2016 campaign, Obama described Sanders’s bid in terms that sounded dismissive to some ears:
I think Hillary came in with the both privilege — and burden — of being perceived as the front-runner. . . . You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before — that’s a disadvantage to her. Bernie is somebody who — although I don’t know as well because he wasn’t, obviously, in my administration — has the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, and [with] great authenticity, great passion, and is fearless. His attitude is, “I got nothing to lose.”
In 2018, Sanders declared, “the business model, if you like, of the Democratic party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” a remark that many in Obama’s circle interpreted as a disrespectful criticism. “Back when Sanders seemed like more of a threat than he does now, Obama said privately that if Bernie were running away with the nomination, Obama would speak up to stop him,” Ryan Lizza reported in November.
All of which is to point out just what an extraordinarily unlikely figure Sanders was to become a major presidential candidate in 2016. Vermont offered no key strategic positioning in a presidential election, as the second-least-populous state in the union. Hillary Clinton had been the heir apparent to President Obama since the day she conceded to him in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. The incumbent president, popular with the Democratic grassroots, appeared to prefer Clinton. By assuming control of the Democratic National Committee’s debts, the Clinton campaign had effectively coopted the DNC into its service. Yet somehow, Sanders came close to beating her — and along the way he inspired a fanatical loyalty that has helped him defy the conventional wisdom to remain a strong contender for the 2020 nomination.
At the beginning of this cycle, even some Sanders fans wondered if a man in his late 70s could run for president and successfully serve — and that was before October, when he suffered a heart attack and doctors inserted two stents in a blocked artery. When the news broke, David Axelrod articulated the uncomfortable truth: “While we all wish Senator Sanders well, this has to be a big flashing light for him. And given his age, it may be for some voters, as well.” Yet Sanders is in better shape in the polls now than he was before the heart attack.
It’s easy to see why Sanders supporters believe their man is a candidate of destiny: He’s accumulated one improbable victory after another in a charmed 40-year political career. As recently as this point four years ago, no one in their right mind would have bet on Sanders to be here now, ranking among the front-runners for the party’s nomination. He’s been an oddball and a longshot every step of the way, and he’s won every step of the way. Now he finds himself a few more steps away from becoming the 46th president of the United States. Why couldn’t he win?
Of course, the glass-half-empty view is that Sanders is where he is today because of improbable luck and the bad judgment of others. In this telling, his career would have proceeded quite differently if the incumbent mayor of Burlington had put serious effort into winning reelection, or LaPierre had chosen to not endorse him, or Hillary Clinton had recognized her weaknesses among some Democrats earlier in the 2016 primary. Any one of his opponents over the years could have discovered his writings about rape fantasies in that alternative newspaper and wrecked his support among women. That heart attack could have killed him. His happy accidents were still accidents.
By the end of spring, we will know whether Bernie Sanders is indeed the candidate of destiny his supporters believe him to be or just an aging oddball who happened to be in the right place in the right time over and over again until his decades-long hot streak ran cold. If nothing else, we’re in for an interesting few months.