Listening to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ videoed announcement of his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination, I was struck by how much has changed since 2016, and how little.
Sanders, recall, ran a spirited primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, a campaign that was undermined by crooked dealing, dirty tricks and sabotage by the Hillary campaign and by the Democratic National Committee, all of which effectively stole the nomination from Sanders that year and that basically handed the presidency over to Trump.
Sanders could have easily defeated Trump in 2016 had he been the Democratic candidate in November. He might even have become president that year had he accepted, instead of ignored, an invitation from Green Party head and presidential candidate Jill Stein, made after Clinton stole the Democratic nomination, to run for president on the Green ticket. Many Trump voters would probably have dropped him for Sanders in that chaotic election campaign, and millions of Democrats and left-leaning independents were so disgusted with Clinton and the corrupt machinations of the DNC that they would have readily jumped ship for an independent candidate Sanders.
Let me confess here that I was captivated and inspired by Sanders during that campaign. It is undeniable that he inspired millions of people, including especially young people — those under 35 who had never really been involved in electoral politics before. He did this with virtually the whole corporate media industry (including NPR) lined up against him and his policy proposals, running shoddy, fact-challenged hit pieces, often in close coordination with agents of the Clinton campaign. It was a model of grass-roots organizing against the power of big money, and it almost worked.
But Sanders ultimately caved and endorsed Clinton at the end of the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, in a sad and embarrassing public address that deflated all the energy and passion that had built up during his campaign. Indeed his betrayal of the cause of radical reform and his signing on to the dead-in-the-water Clinton campaign may well have been what swung the election to Trump in those key normally solid Democratic states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan that went to Trump by very small numbers and put him over the top in the Electoral College.
Now Sanders is back in the race, with a fiery announcement speech that hit almost all the key points for a campaign aimed at making radical change; Medicare for All including the term “single-payer” lest people think he just meant just an expansion of the very limited existing Medicare program, support for immigration reform and DACA, real action on climate change, free tuition at public universities and colleges, action on student debt, etc. He mentioned combating militarism, but not specifically US militarism and more to the point, did not condemn Trump’s and especially his National Security Advisor John Bolton’s serious threats against both Iran and Venezuela (countries whose names were not even mentioned). Nor did he call for major cuts in US military spending, which currently accounts for 34% of all global military spending and basically renders impossible the funding of any major progressive initiatives.
Sanders’ entry into the now seriously crowded Democratic presidential nomination contest (he makes it 12) generated immediate excitement. According to news reports citing the campaign, the 77-year-old Sanders received a stunning $3.3 million in 120,000 small-sized campaign contributions within just 12 hours of his announcement, replicating what his campaign did during the 2016 campaign.
But this enthusiasm could die down quickly if people just see more of the same from him.
As Sanders said in his announcement speech, things have changed in the three years since his quixotic 2016 campaign. He proudly noted how proposals he was making then like single-payer national health care for all, a $15/hour national minimum wage, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy and free public college tuition had all been labelled “extreme” or “radical” and undoable at the time but are now supported by a majority of the American people, and even by many Republicans.
But other things have changed too, and Bernie has some catching up to do. Americans have since 2016 grown sick of this country’s endless wars and special forces incursions in other nations, as well as with its brinksmanship towards Russia and China. Bernie needs to call for the US to withdraw from all those 800 bases it occupies, to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, to leave Venezuela to the Venezuelans and to stop squeezing the Venezuelan economy trying to foment an uprising. He needs to demand that the US stop backing Ukraine’s fascist government in its warring against its Russian minority in the Donbass region, and to stop sending aggressive weapons to forward military bases near Russia. He needs to demand a return to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev and now terminated by President Trump.
Finally he needs to say he will cancel the incredibly wasteful $1.3-trillion “refurbishment” of the US’s oversized nuclear weapons arsenal ordered by President Obama, and halt the equally wasteful and destabilizing production of the F-35, an incredibly overpriced and destabilizing nuclear-capable stealth bomber whose only real purpose is to be able to initiate a nuclear war, either against some non-nuclear nation like Iran, or even more dreadful to contemplate, against Russia or China.
Sanders has waffled on this for years, criticizing the F-35 as a boondoggle on the one hand while endorsing its deployment to the Vermont Air National Guard unit based in Burlington, his adopted home state.
You can’t have it both ways, Bernie.
Failing to take on the US military will hurt Sanders badly, especially in a primary contest including Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an outspoken critic of US warmongering who is also in the race. Gabbard should be a natural ally of Sanders. She famously quit as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, denouncing what she called its bias in support of Clinton in the primaries, and went on the campaign stump for Sanders that year.
Sanders will also have to make it clear, if he wants to generate the kind of support he had in 2016, that his “socialist” policy ideas are serious, and that he will not simply set them aside and support any Democratic nominee for president should he lose in the primaries again. No endorsement, for example, of former Vice President Joe Biden, a mainstream Democrat who is considering a run for president that would be a redo of Hillary’s disastrous campaign, or for the progressive poseur Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, already in the race but who is openly mocking Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal, trying to stake out a “moderate” position.
This year, Sanders needs to make it clear that if he doesn’t get the nomination, he’ll either sit the election out or consider a third-party run.
His backers will demand that this time after what happened in 2016.