FAIRFIELD, Iowa — Bernie Sanders takes a big breath, puts his hands firmly on the podium and gazes out at 500 cheering supporters in the Fairfield Arts Center.
“Thank you, Iowa! This is where the political revolution began!”
Indeed, it was in Iowa where the Bernie Sanders political phenomenon took hold. A self-proclaimed “Democratic-Socialist,” the senator from Vermont appeared out of virtually nowhere in 2015 to become an unlikely but passionate hero to Democrats eager for more liberal policies and a more passionate voice.
He lost to Hillary Clinton by one-quarter of 1 percent in the 2016 Iowa Caucuses and ended up losing the Democratic nomination to her, as well. He’s back in Iowa to avenge those losses, saying, “We are going to complete what we began here four years ago.”
Sanders, although older (now 77 versus a more sprightly 74), is picking up right where he left off last time around. He still looks like your grumpy but heart-of-gold grandfather, still loves to delve into policy — “OK, sit down now, we’re going to get into some issues,” he tells the crowd — and still advocates for dramatic, revolutionary change in the American political and economic system.
Highlights of his platform include:
• Universal health care: “The United States is going to guarantee health care for all people as a human right. This is a dysfunctional health care system whose function is to make huge profits for the insurance and drug companies. ... We are gonna pass a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program.”
• Free college: “We need our public universities and colleges to be tuition-free. And lower the current debt load. We can afford $1.5 trillion for tax breaks but not for student debt? Nonsense!”
• Income inequality: “We say to the wealthiest 1 percent and the large corporations: Things are going to change for you when we’re in the White House. No tax breaks! You’ll pay your fair share. The underlying principle of our government will not be greed. Greed is a true disease and we are gonna take on that greed.”
• Election and voting reform: “We will overturn Citizens United and move to public funding of elections. We’re going to end this outrageous gerrymandering that we see all over the country. And we are going to take on Republican governors who are suppressing the vote. I say to those cowardly Republican governors: If you’re not prepared to engage in a free and fair campaign, get the hell out of politics and get another job.”
The 2019 Bernie Sanders campaign does have some new features. The first is Sanders’ argument that his political revolution is, well, not so revolutionary anymore. Not because he’s changed, but because the country has changed. He says that when he ran in 2015, he was laughed at, ridiculed and told by the media, Republicans and many Democrats, “Hey, the ideas you’re talking about, they’re crazy, they’re extreme, and nobody in America supports these ideas.”
He points to a number of positions — raising the minimum wage, health care as a guaranteed right, $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, expanding social security, climate change as a national security issue, legalization of marijuana — and says they are not considered radical anymore. “Today virtually all those ideas are supported by a majority of the American people, and Democratic candidates from school board to president are supporting those ideas.”
The second change has direct relevance for Kansas: a new emphasis on the issues of rural America and the plight of the American farmer. Sanders has unleashed a large-scale proposal to break up agricultural monopolies and shift farm subsidies to small family farmers. In a speech in Osage, Iowa, Sanders said that agricultural conglomerates seek to extract wealth out of rural communities while treating locals like “modern-day indentured servants.”
His plan would use antitrust laws to break up existing agriculture monopolies and government intervention in setting price controls. “This is an issue we’re going to be talking about a lot. We’re going to stop the decline of rural America,” he told the crowd in Fairfield.
Finally, Sanders has someone he will be targeting throughout his campaign in the person of Donald Trump. One of the key themes for Sanders is the idea that the guiding principles of government should be justice. “And when I’m talking about justice,” he says, “I’m talking about economic justice, I’m talking social justice, I’m talking racial justice, and I am talking about environmental justice.”
Sanders is arguing that the presence of Trump does not allow for the country to achieve that justice he seeks. He claims, “What he has done, what he is trying to do, is to divide our nation based on the color of our skin, based on where we were born, based on our sexual orientation, based on our gender, based on our religion. But the function of the president is to bring people together, that is what this campaign is about and is what our presidency will be, OK?”
Sanders enters the race for the Democratic nomination with several big advantages: A built-in voter base in Iowa (he’s polling at 20 percent in the Hawkeye state), prodigious fundraising skills ($18 million raised in six weeks of running), and quirky but indisputable campaign charisma.
Ironically, however, his argument that his ideas have now become more mainstream could be a possible disadvantage. Voters could, in effect, vote for someone else in the very diverse, largely younger field of candidates and still get Bernie’s platform. Of course, they wouldn’t be getting the now larger-than-life political figure that Sanders has become.
For his part, Sanders doesn’t seems too concerned about those kinds of political calculations. As he says in every speech, “This campaign is a political revolution,” and for his supporters, that’s exactly how they like it.