There he was, trotting up the stairs of the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office surrounded by cheering supporters. Bernie Sanders, best known as America’s unapologetic socialist, was about to register as a presidential candidate in the nation’s first primary state.
Throughout his 35-year political career, everything about Sanders conveyed the persona of rebel with a cause — in his case, a decades-long crusade against income inequality.
He was the mayor and congressman who had remained a proud independent, gleefully calling the Democratic and Republican parties “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” for what he considered selling out to “the billionaire class.” He was the cranky outsider who hammered a plaque honoring socialist icon Eugene V. Debs to the wall of his Senate office. Even his hair was independent — an unruly white mass evoking a man too consumed with political revolution to bother with a comb.
“This country needs a political revolution!” the senator from Vermont would bellow to the crowd that day. “Our government belongs to all of us, and not just the 1 percent!”
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But now that the time had come to put his name on the presidential ballot, Sanders had made a decision that reveals a less celebrated dimension of his political identity. He is a pragmatist who likes to win. And so the first step in the Sanders revolution was its most conventional.
The cranky outsider became a Democrat.
“It was a hard decision because he’s prided himself on his independence,” said longtime friend Huck Gutman, an English professor at the University of Vermont. “He struggled with the fact that as somebody who had criticized the Democratic Party for a lack of forward thinking and a lack of courage that it could be a tough slog in the Democratic primaries.”
The wisdom of the decision bore its first fruits in the Iowa caucuses, where Sanders, 74, came within less than half a percentage point of upsetting Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate for the Democratic nomination. He then beat Clinton in New Hampshire, and has won in Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont, Kansas and Nebraska.
All of which makes the reasons for Sanders’ decision seem obvious. Independent campaigns for president have never won. And Sanders, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said he would never be a “spoiler,” the label applied to third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who was blamed for Democrat Al Gore’s loss in 2000.
“I have no taste for symbolic campaigns,” Sanders wrote in his 1997 political autobiography, “Outsider in the House.”
But the reasons go deeper than that.
Over his career, Sanders has inched ever closer to the Democratic Party. At this point, he explains his democratic-socialist views by referring not to Debs but to one of the most beloved Democrats, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“Here is a very simple fact of life,” said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont. “Bernie is the only socialist candidate I’ve ever met who wants to win. That’s the key to Bernie. He is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met — very competitive, very smart. Because people think he’s a wooly-headed crazy man, they don’t understand how cunning he is.”
‘Two sides of him’
It was around 1976 when Sanders got tired of losing.
Raised in a working-class family in Brooklyn, Sanders always had a competitive streak.
His political education began when his older brother, Larry, dragged him to meetings of the Young Democrats at Brooklyn College. Soon, it revolved around movements for social change sweeping the country in the 1960s.
At the University of Chicago, Sanders got involved in radical student politics. He joined the Young People’s Socialist League. He became a leader in a student chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He worked on the re-election campaign of Leon Despres, a Chicago alderman famous for challenging the Democratic machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, learning the nuts and bolts of grass-roots politics. He steeped himself in Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and writers in the socialist canon, such as Karl Marx, Erich Fromm and John Dewey.
After graduating, Sanders joined the wave of back-to-the-landers heading to Vermont full of vague ideas about changing the world the way the ’60s had taught them — from the outside.
And yet life on the outside was fairly aimless. Sanders tried to work as a carpenter, wrote rambling political articles for obscure newspapers, had a son, got divorced and found himself on unemployment. Then in 1971, he was invited to a meeting of the fledgling Liberty Union Party, a scrappy group of antiwar lefties.
The party was looking for a volunteer to run a symbolic campaign for the U.S. Senate. Sanders was game. Soon he was campaigning, and a stump speech was born.
As he explains its origins in his autobiography, the House Banking Committee had just issued a report that described “the degree to which large banks in America controlled many major corporations, exerting enormous economic influence over our society.” Sanders found it jaw-dropping. He began lugging the thick, detail-laden report all over Vermont, drawing upon it in speeches that sound familiar today.
“Time after time, I pointed out that such disparity in the distribution of the wealth and decision-making power was not just unfair economically, but that without economic democracy it was impossible to achieve genuine political democracy,” Sanders wrote.
In that 1972 Senate election, Sanders got 2 percent of the vote. In 1974, he got 4 percent. When he ran for governor in 1976, he got 6 percent. And that was the year Sanders grew tired of losing. He quit the party.
Sanders began rethinking the means to achieving his ideas. His next try involved making sorrowfully low-budget films about little-known American radicals, including Debs, the fiery union organizer who ran for president five times, including once from prison, and helped found the Socialist Party in America.
Then his close friend Richard Sugarman suggested that he run for mayor of Burlington as an independent. The idea this time was to win.
In his campaign, Sanders began translating his political philosophy into local goals. He promised to fix a derelict underpass that left a poor neighborhood isolated when it rained. He would block a waterfront development and oppose a tax increase. He won by 10 votes.
Sanders told reporters he would govern with a steering committee of the poor, labor unions and the “disenfranchised.”
But his three terms were marked more by practicality than ideology. He compromised with developers to increase affordable housing. He tried to reduce cable TV rates. Sanders even had some of his old lefty allies arrested when they tried to block a General Electric plant that made military guns, deciding that jobs were more important than the abstraction of world peace.
Sanders and his supporters out-organized his mainstream opposition, creating a liberal alliance that increased voter turnout, resulting in enough city council wins to let him govern.
He also began tacking closer to the Democratic Party. In 1984, he endorsed Democrat Walter Mondale for president. In 1988, he enthusiastically endorsed Jesse Jackson.
A pattern was taking shape that would carry Sanders to Washington. He would remain the independent that Vermonters knew and apparently loved, but he would make friends with the Democrats.
“He’s idealistic and pragmatic,” said his friend Jim Rader, who drove Sanders to the fateful Liberty Union meeting in 1971. “I don’t think he sees any conflict in those two sides of him.”
Tempering the revolt
It was the pragmatist who ran for a U.S. House seat in 1990. Sanders won as an independent with the tacit support of Vermont Democrats.
Asked how he would work with a party he had long criticized, Sanders told a reporter, “I’ve told the people of my state for 20 years that I’m an independent and I don’t want to come down here and suddenly become a Democrat.”
But he made it clear that he wanted to caucus with the Democrats. Doing so would be the only way to get committee assignments. He gradually slipped into the inner-party sanctum, where he has remained relatively uncontroversial.
In his 25-year career in the House and Senate, Sanders has voted with Democrats more than 90 percent of the time, occasionally veering on the issue of gun control, where he has cited the concerns of his rural state. Like all his colleagues, he has struggled against gridlock.
He sponsored 357 bills — from the Workplace Democracy Act of 1992 to the Dental Health Improvement Act of 2002 to the Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act of 2015. Three became law, a batting average comparable with Clinton’s in her eight years in the Senate. Of those, one was huge — a $15 billion overhaul of the Veterans Health Administration. The two others renamed Vermont post offices.
Most of Sanders’ victories have been modest — passing an amendment for an extra $10 million for senior nutrition programs, for instance, or $15 million to help people weatherize their homes.
More telling is how Sanders operated. Although he could make a fist-pounding speech, he usually avoided the sort of rebellious moves that would irk Democratic leaders.
When Sanders and his allies lost their push for a single-payer system during the debate over health care, for example, he relented and voted for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, negotiating $11 billion in funding for community health centers in the process.
When he delivered an eight-hour, 37-minute speech blasting a deal struck to extend George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, Sanders was careful not to punish his colleagues by keeping them in Washington over the weekend.
“I find it hard to believe when we are talking about massive cuts in programs for working families, when we have a huge national debt, that anyone would be agreeing to lowering the estate-tax rate,” Sanders railed to a mostly empty chamber.
“The Speech,” as it came to be known, turned Sanders into a hero to many progressives, while costing him little goodwill among his colleagues.
‘I’m a Democrat’
When Sanders began thinking about a run for president, the inevitable question was whether he would run an independent campaign.
It is unclear how seriously he took the idea, but he began meeting with key progressive leaders, almost all of whom remained haunted by Nader and urged Sanders to run as a Democrat.
One was Steve Cobble, political director of Progressive Democrats of America, which had organized a petition drive to press Sanders to run. Cobble said the conversation revolved around Jackson’s 1988 campaign.
“The argument I made was about the power of the Jackson campaign, how he changed the party, opened the door to the election of a black president,” he said.
Sanders met with former House colleagues and others who did not want to see Clinton coronated as the nominee. They wanted Sanders to run as a Democrat, which would help him raise the money he would need.
As Sanders mulled it all over, he took long walks around Burlington with his old friend Gutman.
“To run as an independent might guarantee a Republican president,” Gutman said, recalling the conversations. On the other hand, becoming a Democrat meant “walking away from something he had been very proud of.”
And yet couldn’t Sanders argue that he was essentially a Democrat already?
“He felt increasingly, over the years in Washington, that the agenda he was pursuing as a progressive independent was not unrelated to FDR ... or the domestic LBJ,” Gutman said.
That was it.
He would be “a Democrat who is striving to reclaim the heart and center of the Democratic Party.” Gutman said. “Remember when FDR said: ‘Banks hate me. I welcome their hatred’?”
It was the sort of thing Sanders had been saying since he hauled around the House banking report during his Liberty Union days.
Soon, Sanders would be on the trail, casting democratic socialism as within the most progressive traditions of the Democratic Party.
“It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans,” Sanders would say in a major speech. “And it builds on what Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that ‘this country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.’”
But for now, in the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office, Sanders made his decision official. Following tradition, he left a note as he filed his candidacy, writing that it was time for a “political revolution.”
Then the democratic socialist from Vermont took the next logical step.
“I’m a Democrat,” Sanders told the crowd of reporters waiting outside.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.