|Senator Bernie Sanders (AP Photo / Charlie Neibergall)|
Des Moines - When William Lloyd Garrison launched his crusading abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in 1831 - at a time when Congress refused even to debate the issue of slavery, and three long decades before America would finally confront the sin of human bondage - he acknowledged that his call for the “immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves” was going to upset the polite politics and empty calculations of the elites.
“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?” Garrison wrote. “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
After Bernie Sanders delivered a fiery address to the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday night, in which the independent senator contrasted his record with that of more cautious politicians, the official Twitter account of the Democratic presidential contender featured the last line from Garrison’s declaration.
At a pivotal point in the long competition for the Democratic nomination, when many pundits are writing a next narrative for the 2016 presidential race, in which front-runner Hillary Clinton is again recognized by political and media elites as the prohibitive favorite, Sanders is signaling that he intends not just to fight on but to wage an edgier, more aggressive campaign that will not equivocate. With musicians singing truth-to-power songs, a raucous march, and a fiery speech, Sanders told the first-caucus state of Iowa that the insurgent intends to remain an insurgent.
The simple shorthand of most pundits saw evidence that Sanders is finally engaging in some compare-and-contrast campaigning with Clinton - and there was some of that. But the fight in Iowa (and the rest of the country) is not so much against other candidates, says Sanders, as it is for “a political revolution” that engages citizens who would not otherwise participate in caucuses, primaries or even the 2016 general election.
When Sanders speaks of that political revolution, he is asking Americans - especially younger Americans like the crowds of Iowans in their teens and twenties who packed the Sanders bleachers in Des Moines’ Hy-Vee Hall for the Jefferson-Jackson dinner - to believe that electoral politics might actually change something. Sanders knows that won’t happen unless people who are frustrated and disengaged and disenchanted see him as a candidate who is distinctly different from the rest.
So Sanders ramped up his rhetoric over the weekend, offering more of a sense of who he is and of the fights he has made as a civil-rights campaigner, a labor activist, a mayor, a congressman, and now a senator. And he pointed out that those fights have not merely been with Republicans but with cautious Democrats.
In his remarks at a #RockinTheBern rock show that drew a cheering crowd of more than 2,000 to a Davenport concert hall on Friday night, at a rally and march across downtown Des Moines’s Women of Achievement Bridge on Saturday afternoon, and in his closely watched speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Saturday night, Sanders embraced the movements and the messages of outsiders seeking a way into the political process.
What he said at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner was thoroughly parsed by the pundits. But what Sanders said after rock legends such as Wayne Kramer of the MC5 and songwriter Jill Sobule performed on his behalf in Davenport, and as he prepared to march in Des Moines, sent the actual, and far more significant, signal of the weekend.
No matter how well he does in the polls, no matter how much the Democratic race is framed as a contest between him and Clinton, Sanders will continue to portray his run not as a competition with another candidate but as a challenge to a political process that tens of millions of Americans see as broken.
“What this campaign is about is not just electing a president, it is transforming America,” the candidate told the crowd of young people, labor and community activists that assembled to march him into the hall where the dinner was to be held. “To do that we need millions of people - people who have given up on the political process, people who are demoralized, people who don’t believe that government listens to them. We need to bring those people together to stand up loudly and clearly and to say ‘Enough is enough.’ This country belongs to all of us, not just wealthy campaign donors.”
“In a few minutes we will be marching. This march will not only get us to the event tonight, it is a symbolic march,” Sanders continued. “It makes me think about the great marches for civil rights, immigration reform, social justice, addressing our environmental crises. This is a march which will end up in a year when you will join me in the White House.”
That was the takeaway message from a weekend of high-stakes politics in which Sanders positioned himself as a candidate whose long-term commitment to progressive ideals, and whose willingness to act on those ideals even in the most challenging of moments, suggested not just “authenticity” - to borrow the buzzword of the moment - but a context in which Democrats might assess his promise to “govern based on principle not poll numbers.”
“I pledge to you that every day I will fight for the public interest not the corporate interests,” Sanders told the Jefferson-Jackson dinner crowd, as his young supporters answered with thunderous applause. “I will not abandon any segment of American society - whether you’re gay or black or Latino, poor or working class - just because it is politically expedient at a given time.”
The proposition Sanders offered was clear enough: While others might make promises, he can be counted on to stand firm for economic and social justice, for peace and the planet.
Pundits heard a sharper critique of Clinton - and there were reasonably obvious notations to differences between the records and approaches of the candidates on issues ranging from marriage equality to trade policy to the Iraq War. But the speech was, more precisely, a critique of contemporary politics that spoke to the frustration - among liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and especially among young people - with petty partisanship and a so-called ‘pragmatism’ that invariably rewards Wall Street rather than Main Street.
Clinton has tapped into that frustration, by articulating increasingly progressive positions on many of the economic, financial and trade policy issues that Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have been highlighting over the years.
The front-runner’s speeches have grown steadily more populist rhetorically. There was plenty of talk Saturday night about economic fairness in an address that drew enthusiastic cheers from thousands of Clinton backers at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. “We’re going to build an America where there are no ceilings for anyone, where no one gets left behind or left out …,” declared Clinton, who announced she was “running as a proud Democrat” - a wink-and-nod reference to Sanders’s status as an independent who is only now running his first race as a Democrat.
Clinton celebrated her resurgent candidacy - following a strong performance in the first Democratic debate and an even stronger performance at the House hearing on Benghazi - with pop star Katy Perry and a former president named Bill Clinton.
Before the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a critical juncture on the calendar leading up to each presidential election, Clinton rallied with her husband and Perry outside the Des Moines hall where more than 6,000 Iowans would gather to hear the remaining contenders for the party’s nomination - Clinton, Sanders, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley - make pitches that will frame a hundred-day run from late October to the February 1 caucuses that begin the formal process of selecting a nominee.
Clinton has always led the national race, and generally led in Iowa. But the lead seemed tenuous as summer turned to fall. Now, however, she’s surging - moving up in the polls, collecting key endorsements, and seeing off Republican critics with the steady determination and studied good humor that invites the use of the word “presidential.”
Two of her Democratic rivals (former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee and former Virginian senator Jim Webb) have quit the competition, and a Democrat who posed a more serious threat (Vice President Joe Biden) has decided against making a 2016 bid.
O’Malley, with his message sharpened and his status as a continuing contender strengthened by the exits of the other candidates, delivered a polished and professional speech to the gathering of definitional Democrats in Iowa. He may still be polling in the low single digits, but his speech and his organization leading up to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner was smart and professional.
The same went for Clinton’s presence. She did everything right, and then some. Her backers were enthusiastic - many of them Iowa members of the National Education Association, which recently endorsed her candidacy; many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “Hill Yes!” They packed the sections of the hall reserved for the Clinton team, and they were already talking about how and where they will caucus.
Plenty of Clinton backers expressed regard for Sanders, but they also cheered a none-too-subtle dig at her chief rival. “It’s not enough to just rail against Republicans and billionaires - we have to win this election,” she jabbed.
Clinton did not get personal. She did not criticize Sanders by name. Nor did Sanders get personal, or criticize Clinton by name.
What Sanders did was highlight a series of issues on which, more often than not, he split with prominent Democrats - including Clinton - to take positions that were considered politically dangerous.
Sanders pointed to his relatively lonely opposition in the 1990s to the Defense of Marriage Act, which he dismissed as “simply homophobic legislation,” and to gutting bank regulations with attacks on the Glass-Steagall Act. He explained his opposition to authorizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to take the country to war in Iraq, earning loud applause when he told the crowd, “I am proud to tell you (that) when I came to that fork in the road, I took the right road, even though it was not the popular road at the time.”
He mentioned his long crusade for a serious response to climate change and his early opposition to the Keystone pipeline, arguing that, “Honestly, it wasn’t that complicated. Should we support the construction of a pipeline across America and accelerate the extraction of some of the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world? To me, that was a no-brainer and that is why I have opposed the Keystone Pipeline from the beginning.”
On the issue of trade policy, Sanders was particularly blunt: “After I came to Congress (in 1990), corporate America, Wall Street, the administration and virtually all of the corporate media: they said you’ve got to vote for this NAFTA trade agreement … I didn’t believe their arguments I voted against NAFTA. I voted against CAFTA. I voted against PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) with China. And history has proven those of us who opposed those agreements were right - because, in the last 14 years, this country lost 60,000 factories and millions of decent-paying jobs.
“And let me be clear about the current trade deal that we are debating in Congress, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That agreement is not now, nor has it ever been, the gold standard of trade agreements. I did not support it yesterday. I do not support it today. And I will not support it tomorrow.”
That reference to “the gold standard” recalled a 2012 speech in which then-Secretary of State Clinton, who now criticizes the TPP, told an Australian audience, “This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”
Sanders and his team had to know that the “gold standard” reference would catch the ear not just of labor and environmental activists who organize on trade issues but of pundits who are always listening for political fireworks. But something else caught the ear of the young Iowans in the Sanders bleachers at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, the ones who weren’t eating at the main tables where the party leaders were seated. They were on their feet shouting their approval of the “not … yesterday, not … today, not … tomorrow” steadiness of Sanders’ stance.
“Can Sanders win Iowa? I think the answer is yes,” explained Ed Fallon, a former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate, as he looked at the crowd of young Sanders backers in the bleachers Saturday night. “But to do that, he has to get these people to the caucuses. He has to get a lot of people to the caucuses who aren’t happy with politics as usual. The way to do that is by making it very clear that he’s never been a typical politician and that he’s not going to be a typical politician now.”
John Nichols Twitter John Nichols is The Nation’s National Affairs Correspondent.