President Bernie Sanders would spend little time placating congressional opponents. The 73-year-old senator from Vermont told the Times Editorial Board he would replicate his playbook from his years as mayor of Burlington, Vermont: Build an independent coalition around reform ideas, then let voters apply pressure.
At age 44, Sanders won his first mayoral post by 10 votes, then faced a hostile council expecting a single term. Instead, he focused on ideas, not personalities, and built popular support for big change. The next election brought enough sympathetic aldermen to support his veto.
“I did it by going to the people and giving my opponents an offer they could not refuse. If they just continued to obstruct us, they would pay a political price.”
Fast-forward to the prospect of a Sanders presidency in 2016. He envisions a grassroots movement like Barack Obama’s 2008 juggernaut propelling him to office. But with a key difference.
“The mistake he made in my view … is the day after he was sworn in, he said to millions of young people, ‘Thank you so much for electing me. I’m on my own now. I’ll take it from here.’ I think he believed sincerely he could sit down with John Boehner and Republican leadership and say I’m willing to compromise. But literally, on the day of his inauguration, Republicans made the plan to obstruct, obstruct, obstruct.
“I’m not going to break that tie with the grassroots movement Obama so admirably put together.”
Instead, he intends to rally a reform movement that ushers in big ideas that make the grist of his campaign appearances, like Thursday’s town-hall type forum that overflowed St. Ambrose University’s Rogalski Center.
Free college. A $15 per hour minimum wage. Single-payer health care with no private, for-profit insurance companies. Emissions controls to curb global warming.
“It is very, very difficult. That is why I use the words ‘political revolution,’” he said.
That revolution will require caucus turnout higher than this state has ever seen.
“We knew from Day 1 we can’t outspend our opponents,” he said. He needs to tap into Iowans alienated from the political process. That includes, “people, frankly, who voted for Obama, who worked for Obama, and now, sometimes the word ‘disillusionment’ rises. Can we tap some of that energy?”
Only that grassroots support can overcome the tens of millions of dollars in secret contributions that have taken the Iowa caucus campaign out of town halls and other face-to-face meetings and relegated it to TV screens and social media.
Sanders has done pretty well on social media. He garners millions of Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest views each week from pithy memes featuring Sanders’ provocative quotes. “If you can spend six trillion dollars sending people to war, you can spend a few billion dollars taking care of them when they come home.”
Sanders and a handful of his Senate office staffers come up with a few memes each week, then push them through social media, where they’re shared and forwarded by millions. These memes are the ideas Sanders hopes can fundamentally change Washington, whether he wins or not.
“If I do badly and my campaign has a bad agenda, yeah, it’s an embarrassment to me. But so what. I’ve been embarrassed a million times in my life.” Losing the Iowa caucuses is not his biggest fear. His biggest fear is that his ideas might die if his candidacy fails. “If my opponent says, ‘Look, Sanders talked about that and nobody supported him, his campaign went nowhere. Don’t tell me about those ideas. Those are ridiculous ideas.”
He promises frequent Iowa appearances, including more town halls with more questions from voters. Don’t expect him to trade his rumpled sports jacket for overalls or put a green cap over his unruly white hair.
“You’ll see me in many, many small towns, but maybe not on hay bales.”