Is Bernie Sanders really all there is? Lessons from Pat Robertson's insurgency

If Warren sits 2016 out, an unelectable longshot may be liberals' only hope. Let's take a lesson from Pat Robertson

Published October 4, 2014 12:00PM (EDT)

Pat Robertson in 1988, Bernie Sanders in 2014                (AP/Peter Southwick/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Pat Robertson in 1988, Bernie Sanders in 2014 (AP/Peter Southwick/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

With the 2016 elections still two years away, and Elizabeth Warren saying that she will not run, the most likely challenger on the left appears to Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont socialist, re-elected with 71 percent of the vote in 2012, who caucuses with the Democrats. Forget the White House, some critics would say: Sanders doesn’t even have a shot at giving Hillary a strong primary challenge, should he choose to run as a Democrat, so why bother?

The answer is easy: 1988.  That year, not one, but two long-shot outsider primary campaigns had profound impacts on American politics: Jesse Jackson on the left, and Pat Robertson on the right. As Sanders actively tests the waters, the question of just how to make the most of the opportunity is both timely and important.

“It’s unlikely that Senator Sanders would win the presidential election in 2016,” said Darcy Burner, former executive director of the House Progressive Caucus.  But, she added quickly, “A Bernie Sanders run could make a big difference in terms of changing the national conversation if it’s done right, and if the activists on the left focus on it.

“One of the key tactics the political status quo uses to maintain the existing balance of power is to distract people with false binary choices about key problems facing the country. For instance: should we cut Social Security now or later?” Burner said.  “People assume that because those are the choices they hear, then those must be the only choices. This tactic is used across every policy area.”

For years, along these same lines, the Progressive Caucus has developed a People’s Budget, solidly aligned with supermajority views of the American people — protecting Social Security and Medicare, for example — which the donor-class-dominated political media routinely ignores, even though those budgets have also done a better job of bringing budget deficits down than the various more prominent proposals.  Sanders has been the one consistent voice in the Senate supporting the People’s Budget — a strong indication of what Burner sees in his potential candidacy.

“If we want to change the conversation, we have to stop being distracted by the false framing handed to us by those in power and instead start discussing the actual range of choices we face,” Burner said. “Senator Sanders has a long history of seeing past the false choices and presenting clearly what our real choices are. By default, the media will try to avoid covering him: he’s unlikely to win and the things he says are outside of their comfort zone. So the key challenge to the left is to do whatever it takes to get people to actually hear what he’s saying.”

Amplifying Sanders’ voice, and demanding that others respond to it, will be key, Burner went on to say: “It means making a conscious decision to build a grassroots loudspeaker for the things he talks about. And it means deciding to ignore the defenders of the status quo calling us fringe and crazy, because when they can’t attack our ideas, they switch to character assassination every time.”

Returning to the examples of 1988, on the Democratic side, Jesse Jackson’s shoestring campaign nonetheless came in second, winning 29 percent of the primary votes, compared to 42 percent gained by the nominee, Michael Dukakis. He registered large numbers of low-income and minority voters, and reshaped delegate selections rules — both factors that helped Barack Obama win the nomination 20 years later.

But on the Republican side, a far less successful campaign had an even greater long-term impact. Pat Robertson came in a distant third, gaining just 9 percent of primary votes compared to 68 percent for the nominee, George H.W. Bush, yet Roberston used the mailing lists gathered by his campaign to establish the Christian Coalition, which proceeded to take over much of GOP’s state-level infrastructure in the following decade.

Progressive strategist Mike Lux has co-founded more groups than most folks are members of, while also playing a leadership role in five presidential campaigns and writing "The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be." Lux has a much higher opinion of Warren’s chances should she choose to run against Hillary —“It would be a big fight for the nomination, and I think Elizabeth could win that," he said — but he doesn’t see her getting in the race. Warren represents one end of the spectrum of possible challenges, Lux said. “At the other end of the spectrum there's a sort of Kucinich-style candidacies, which make no ripples, have a lasting impact, as far as I can tell, maybe other people have a different perspective.” Sanders would fall in the middle. “I love him dearly, but he's kind of got that grumpy old man kind of persona; he’s sort of the John McCain of the left,” Lux said.

Still, Lux sees the opportunity for a Robertson-style impact as a real possibility. “If you're going to support Bernie Sanders you should be thinking how do we use this to build long-term, and I think building an organization out of it is something that's worth doing and would add to the progressive infrastructure.”

We can all agree with Lux that Sanders isn’t as charismatic as Jesse Jackson, but Robertson’s example remains relevant — particularly given how out of touch our current broken political system has become, and how widely people feel it. Much has changed since 1988, so it’s not about repeating old formulas. But it is about asking the right set of questions — questions of messaging, organizing, attitude, relationship to history and more … questions that ultimately add up to "What does he need to run a campaign that could renew the promise of America?"  These are clearly worthwhile questions to be asked, not just by Sanders and his advisors, but by all those who might join in supporting him, to help change the trajectory of American politics.

Even for those still hoping Elizabeth Warren will change her mind, the question of how to have a long-term impact should be crucial — in terms of institution-building, advancing ideas, altering the framing of debates, and focusing attention on key generational issues.

When it comes to issues, Zephyr Teachout, who just ran a strong low-budget primary campaign against Wall Street-friendly New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, had no doubt what they should be — although she’s still hoping more candidates will come forward.

"It's a trust-busting moment,” Teachout said, “It is waiting to be grabbed on to. ... When you get into a room, it's what people are experiencing.”  Massively outspent, with the Democratic Party establishment aligned against her, Teachout nonetheless won 34 percent of the vote and carried half of New York’s 62 counties, a solid sign that she’s onto something — and others have agreed.

“Sanders will lay out an agenda that challenges the shibboleths of American politics on Wall Street, on trade, on taxes, on public investment,” said Robert Borosage, founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future. “A lot of that agenda is relatively new for the progressive movements of the last decade, most of which focused more on social issues and much less on economics.”

Without actually committing to run, Sanders effectively confirmed this view in a recent Salon interview, when he laid out the high points of policy agenda to reverse America’s growing inequality and rebuild the middle class. First, raise the minimum wage to a living wage. Second, put Americans back to work with a trillion dollar investment in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, which would create 13 million decent-paying jobs. Third, create “a trade system that works for working people and not just corporate America.”  Those are the first three items, he said. Then add tax reform, so the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share, and making college affordable, while relieving student debt. That won’t solve everything, Sanders acknowledged, but it would go “a good way” toward rebuilding the middle class, and getting the wealthy to pay their fair share.

As a result, Borosage argued, a Sanders campaign could greatly benefit progressives by advancing a debate on these issues. “One of the big opportunities that debate offers is the ability to educate our own activists with an argument and an agenda that many are not comfortable with,” he said. “I would say that what the right does better than we do is that they teach their activists the words of the songs, so they all know the scripture; they all know the verse they are supposed to be reciting,” — something that’s rarely true for progressives, “particularly on economic issues, were progressives are often confused and all over the place.”

Another thing the right seems to do better is make their values seem patriotic, all-American; and Teachout sees a real opportunity here as well. “Taking on trust-busting is one of the oldest traditions, American traditions. Jefferson wanted an anti-monopoly clause in the Constitution, and it was big part of our tradition until 1980, when Reagan eviscerated our antitrust division.”  Teddy Roosevelt and FDR were two other historical figures that she called on in her campaign.

“They’re still powerful with people,” Teachout said. “A nation is like a person. We want to call on our better instincts, knowing that we’ve been able to call them before, instead of disdaining our past. It's very powerful to people.”

In a similar vein, it also helps that Sanders knows very well that he’s representing supermajority positions on some of his most crucial issues, as he pointed out in his interview:

I helped lead the fight to stop the cuts in Social Security, along with some others. I would say, 70-to-80 percent of the American people agree with me. I believe we should raise the minimum wage. I would say 70 percent of the American people agree with that. I’ve been very active in the fight to overturn Citizens United. I would say, again, 70 percent of the people agree with that. I am active in the fight to address the crisis of climate change. I wouldn’t say 70 percent of the people agree with that, but a pretty strong majority do.

Few, if any, national politicians are as confident and comfortable as Sanders in taking these highly popular, but hated-by-big-donor positions. Beyond educating activists, a Sanders campaign could get them similarly comfortable, as well, which is often crucial in building face-to-face, on-the-ground organizing effectiveness.

Still, there are differing views on what Sanders’ issue focus and related strategy should be.  Most agree that economics should be key, but differ on what the specific key issues should be — or even if they can wisely be chosen in advance.  Economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, suggests an issue strategy designed to sharply challenge Hillary Clinton, but with broader general election appeal as well.

“The best thing that Sanders can do is to raise two or three big issues and keep hitting on them,” Baker said — a view echoed by others, such as Borosage. “An obvious one would be foreign policy where he can appear to ally with Obama against Clinton. After Clinton took issue with Obama's line about 'don't do stupid things.' Seems to invite the obvious comeback; President Obama said that we shouldn't do stupid things, and Secretary Clinton disagreed. He can then add that the debate is about judgment. She has repeatedly exercised bad judgment, most obviously on the decision to go to war with Iraq.” Baker sees “a huge amount of potential here that would have an impact with both the Democratic base and the public at large,” noting that “Most people are not into big interventions everywhere.”

Domestically, Baker suggests a two-pronged attack. First, “He should be going after the health care industry. He can tout the ACA — he was an early and active supporter — but then say why it's necessary to go further to rein in costs. In this respect he can point to Vermont's plans for single-payer. He can also talk about reining in the drug industry.”

Second, Baker said, “He should beat up on the financial sector. This is big money for her [Hillary], so she has to be careful.” There are several different facets to this, Baker elaborated. “He can talk about reducing the bloat with a tax as even the I.M.F. has advocated. He can also talk about downsizing the too-big-to-fail banks. The I.M.F. estimated their implicit subsidy at $50 billion a year. (G.A.O. thought otherwise.) And he can talk about appointing people to the Fed who are committed to full employment rather than slamming the brakes on the economy every time workers start to get a share of the benefits of growth.”  Then he added, “Making the Fed an issue could be huge.”

Dave Johnson, who blogs for Campaign for America’s Future, views a potential Sanders run somewhat differently.  On the one hand, he acknowledges there’s a real concern about “a chance of weakening Democrats in the general election, and thereby enabling/increasing the right's destructive power.” On the other hand, he sees strong positive potential in a Sanders run.

“I'd use Zephyr Teachout getting 35 percent with no funding as a starting point for making a groundswell argument.  Also, that we should not have predetermined assumptions about what policies Hillary will push for,” Johnson said.  In short, he thinks both Sanders and Clinton could surprise us.

“It might be that Teachout shows we need a primary fight. Turnout is an issue, and just letting Hillary coast into a nomination might lead to low turnout with that 35 percent that supported Zephyr not bothering. A primary would sharpen things, and maybe sharpen her ability to rally people, should she win the primary.”

But that’s not a foregone conclusion, in Johnson’s mind. “I think people should not underestimate Sanders,” he said. “Bernie is not Kucinich. He is not fringy, which in my opinion Kucinich lent himself to. Sanders is an experienced, respected U.S. senator with accomplishments and a real understanding of the power structures — from the inside. In my opinion he would make a capable president. And he understands how to develop much more and wider support.” This last point is pivotal. As Johnson noted, Sanders only garnered 1 percent support when he first ran for office in Vermont in the 1970s, compared to 71 percent when last re-elected to the Senate in 2012.

"I think if he were showing signs of gathering popular support, he could develop the funding and support to make a real run for it,” Johnson said. “Would that hand the presidency to the corporate right? I don't know — and to me that is the greatest concern for the world right now.”

But that’s not the only concern. “Would Hillary hand the country to the corporate right if elected?” Johnson continued. “I also don't know.”

So a serious primary fight could really make a difference, even if Hillary won as expected.  Key to this would be long-term institution-building — the crucial role that unions played in FDR’s era, and the only reason that Robertson’s 1988 campaign had any lasting impact.  “It takes a significant national structure to run for President. You have to have existing institutional power behind you,” Johnson said. “Lay the foundation now. That has to be our goal. Institutional strength. And that should be the message we get out there. We have to build up a small-donor base to tap into (Dean and Obama) but also the national people connections.”

“Progressives still have not laid out a 10-year, 20-year plan,” Johnson stressed. “One thing the Christian right did was start a farm team of candidates locally so they could rise up. Of course, they had the funding base for that. They had Weyrich out there building institutional power and funding. … The goal of a Sanders campaign should be to build that. It should be the purpose from the start, to get going on a 10-year, 20-year plan."

Naturally, progressives will never be able to match the right dollar-for-dollar, but with popular policies that people actually want, that’s never been the goal. We need enough to be heard. They need enough to drown us out. Johnson had an immediate example in mind. “I think the shortage of acknowledgement that there was a 300,000-400,000 person march in New York with adjunct marches around the world this weekend should send the message that we can have a groundswell, but we need to build institutional power to accomplish what the groundswell is demanding.”

Johnson also echoed a common theme that this would be good for the party as a whole. “Unless Hillary is an idiot — and she isn't — she would want to help make this happen for a number of reasons,” he said, ticking them off quickly:

First, a primary gets people interested much earlier. Second, it gives her every opportunity to mend fences with progressives by embracing Sanders, and spelling out good reasons when she does differ. Third, it helps her get into campaign mode, sharpen her message and speech and gets the organizing started way ahead of September 2016.  And fourth, it helps her if we start the process of building an independent institutional power base, exactly as it would have helped Obama get done the progressive things he actually wanted to get done — but his people would not use that list, insisted on defunding independent organizations, etc.

This last point is a particularly interesting one. It’s always taken for granted that independent political power on the left is bad news for Democrats — though sometimes it’s admitted there can be an upside as well. On the right, it’s the reverse: independent power there is assumed to be indispensable — not just good — for Republicans, though sometimes there’s a discussion of whether just maybe there’s a downside. (War on women? What war on women?)

Steve Cobble, who was the national delegate coordinator on the Jackson '88 presidential campaign, had the most thought-out list of specifics to offer. Cobble works with Progressive Democrats of America, who have launched a "Draft Bernie" effort, so perhaps that’s not surprising.  But what might be somewhat surprising is that Cobble isn’t quite as tightly focused on core middle-class economic issues — though to some extent that’s more a matter of framing. “The campaign needs to run on the issues of the future — if our democracy is to have one — on climate change, on inequality, on peace, on challenging corporate ‘rights’ and Citizens United and big-money domination of our politics,” Cobble said, for starters.  “Local activists on those issues can use the campaign to build their supporter lists, start or strengthen local chapters, strengthen the climate change coalition, carry the Citizens United constitutional amendment case into more states and localities, and use the campaign to find more ways to agitate against the 1 percent.”

Focusing specifically on the subject of message, Cobble said, “The campaign needs to begin to develop an updated ‘progressive message’ for reformers to coalesce around, something along the lines of Naomi Klein's new book, 'This Changes Everything' — a big message, a future message, a hopeful outcome possible, a big fight with big stakes. This opens up space for local organizing.”

This led directly to the subject of candidate/grassroots activists interactions. Naturally, you want to register everyone to vote, “especially the young,” Cobble noted. “Jackson carried the young in the 1988 primaries, and the several million new voters he helped register in his campaigns were still voting 20 years later, when Obama won.”  But first, you have to create connections with people.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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