Bernie Sanders really matters: He doesn't have to win to build a progressive movement

Stop thinking about winners, losers and the dumb horse race. Let's build at the grass roots and debate what matters

Published May 3, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

At 73, Bernie Sanders must still like to campaign. On Thursday he kicked off a race for president of the United States, the Iron Man triathlon of politics. He has run 20 races already, as many as Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton combined. He says this one, like all the rest, will be a grassroots movement financed by small-donor giving. All politicians say that, but in a career spanning 43 years, Sanders has shown he means it. It’s just one of the reasons why people say he can’t win.

It isn’t the only one, as Washington handicappers hasten to explain. Another is his allegedly unsociable personality. It’s true that he isn’t much of a networker; you won’t see many "Friend of Bernie" pins. He’ll do well with small groups; one on one, not so much. He doesn’t even have quiet charisma. He relies more on logic than charm -- and everyone he’s met says that’s the right call.

Most other analysis is standard-issue political punditry. Noting that “there have been no top-flight hires,” Politico quotes a “labor strategist” who says Sanders “doesn’t have a shot” at union endorsements. Bloomberg says “his aversion to big-dollar fundraising raises questions about whether he can collect cash at the level needed to compete with Clinton.” No doubt working with inside sources, the New York Times’ Nate Cohn confides that Sanders “will most likely champion the liberal cause” and then explains why that can’t possibly work: “The left wing of the Democratic Party just isn’t big enough to support a challenge to the left of a mainstream liberal Democrat like Mrs. Clinton.”

Cohn backs up his thesis with a 2014 Pew poll that says lots of Democrats aren’t really liberals. How 2008 turned out the way it did, he doesn’t say.

Clinton loyalists welcome Sanders’ entry because they know she needs a contest, or at least a tune-up. Of course, to get the full benefit she’d have to agree to debate, something she has yet to say she’ll do. That Sanders is six years older than Clinton must feel like a bit of great good luck to them. Some call him a perfect foil; a lesser threat than Warren, yet enough of one to provide progressives with some catharsis while bestowing Clinton with the legitimacy that comes only from competition.

“We’re going to win,” Bernie told ABC's Jon Karl on Thursday, but everyone assumes he won’t. That assumption marginalized him from the moment he got in the race. On his big day, "CBS This Morning" gave him 34 seconds of coverage. On the Times’ web page, a 662-word news story spent a few afternoon hours beneath a report of the American Psychological Association’s condoning of Bush-era torture tactics before being relegated to a link headlined "Bernie Sanders to Run for President, Opposing Clinton." A 900-word piece on Hillary’s recent departure from Bill’s old crime agenda helped push it off the page.

It won’t get any easier for Sanders. I hate horse race coverage as much as anyone, but there’s no sense denying such long odds. Liberals who fretted that Hillary might escape a challenge now fret that a poor showing by Bernie may weaken their case. You’d think by now they’d have tired of tactical thinking, but no. There are better ways to think about 2016. You could, for example, think like an organizer. If you haven’t done it in a while, you needn’t worry. It’s like riding a bicycle.

The first thing to recall is that there are many ways to be a "serious" candidate. Of Bernie Sanders’ first 20 races, many were just as hard as this one. Some were truly impossible; in his first four he finished in single digits. Yet each campaign helped build a movement that would eventually transform Vermont into the enlightened place it is today. You can’t get more serious than that.

Wouldn’t it be great to put America on a path like the one Vermont took? It could happen, but only if this latest Sanders campaign is as fearless and selfless as the first -- and only if progressives see the opportunity and honor it with wise choices. The opportunity is the chance to define an agenda, build a movement and engage the nation in a real debate. A few preliminary thoughts on the choices:

1. Sanders promises to mount a strong grass-roots campaign. In building it, he can’t expect much help from the progressive establishment. Politico’s ‘labor strategist’ is right. Faced with a choice between the union-baiting Wall Street water carrier Rahm Emanuel and his well-qualified, progressive challenger Chuy Garcia, 90 percent of Chicago labor unions stuck with Rahm. Hillary should do at least as well.

Sanders must look beyond the old Washington-centric left long since colonized by Democrats to a new left yet in its chrysalis stage. It’s the left of progressive unions trying out new forms of organizing and governance; of mass organizations like and who still cultivate grassroots democracy; of a Working Families Party battling the old Democrat hierarchy from within; of millions of low-wage earners, the underemployed and the self-employed; of pioneers working to strengthen the commons and experimenting with more democratic forms of ownership and production. The way to draw them in is to distill an agenda that speaks to their needs.

Sanders must promise to do what he did in Vermont; leave a legacy to build on. The 2008 Obama campaign spawned the largest grassroots political movement in American history. Today it’s a zombie movement without even a pretense of democratic governance. Sanders must not turn his grassroots campaign into yet another proprietary mailing list run by donors and consultants. When it’s over, it should belong to all the people who built it. Progressives should demand the same of Clinton and any other Democrat. No one who refuses should get a nickel.

2. Sanders vows to finance his grassroots campaign with small donations. It’s a promise he must honor. Progressive Democrats tolerate their party’s corruption because they believe its leaders must make awful compromises to get the money they need to win. But their compromises destroy their credibility and erode their support. The power of ideas is greater than the power of money. Given the odds, Sanders doesn’t have to win the race to prove the point. He just has to win the debate.

People may not believe it, but you can raise enough money to win without selling your soul. Sanders did it in 2012. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top three "industries" that gave to him then were the retired ($502,170), “Democrats/liberals” ($229,530) and public sector unions ($114,400). Finance and real estate interests combined gave him just $78,000; a sum any self-respecting bank lobbyist could easily drop on a weekend golf outing. Sanders raised $7 million and spent less than half of it to win with 71 percent of the vote.

Sanders says he’ll deal with the Super PAC issue by not forming one. He should avoid all unseemly means of collecting cash and pare his contribution limits as low as he can. It won’t affect the outcome, which will hinge on the quality of his ideas and a host of factors beyond his control. The movement he bequeaths should share its lists with causes outside electoral politics. It can be done. He can show the way.

3.  Sanders says elections should be “serious debates over serious issues.” He takes pride in never having aired a single negative ad, as well he should. There may be another politician of equivalent rank who can make that boast, but for the life of me I don’t know who it is. Democrats have come to believe that the politics we have is the politics we must have. They think vicious personal attacks, innocuous ads and empty catch-phrases are the only way to fight.

Sanders can teach today’s progressives how to be more like their forebears, who won elections and historic reforms by prosecuting their cases with fact and logic. Sanders is bright and articulate enough to pull it off. In so doing he could redefine what it means to be a candidate. He might even persuade a few folks that calculation and charisma count for less than intelligence, character and conviction.

Pundits say Sanders will drive Clinton to the left. Maybe so, but it would be enough to drive her to greater specificity. A shallow, malleable press drools over Clinton’s new populist patois, which thus far contains nothing by way of content. Her people say she’s bent on not repeating her 2008 campaign, but she seems more bent on replaying Obama’s. It’s just as big a mistake.

Obama’s clever syntax worked then, but he’d have come to know his party, his country and himself a whole lot better if he’d been more forthright. In the end it caused him and us much heartache. Of all the candidates who might have run this year, Sanders may be the one best able to get everyone to say what they mean and mean what they say. If all he does is help us get past the gauzy evasions of 2008, he’ll have done his country a great service. By the power of reason Sanders can force not just Clinton but all of us to get real and get specific. Two brief examples:

All Democrats claim to deplore the campaign finance system under which many have prospered, but few treat the issue seriously. Clinton’s for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Good luck with that. There are things we can do now. We can start by keeping Obama’s promise to shut the revolving door between industry and government. We could then pass regulations like those in Scandinavia, Germany and the U.K that bar politicians from any involvement in government procurement. The Clintons rely on pay-to-play politics like Thomas Edison relied on electricity. Moving her toward any real reform will be very hard. But when Sanders gets specific, everyone else will have to.

According to a recent article in Vox, the Clinton camp is mulling over the next round of health care reform with an eye toward an alliance with the insurance industry to drive down costs in other areas. It’s a horrible idea, vastly inferior to the public option that Obama proposed in 2008 but then abandoned. I believe that bringing back the public option is the only route to further savings for government and industry and premiums reductions for everyone else. It’s a debate we ought to have and one Sanders can easily force.

Because of Sanders we’re now assured of a very public Democratic debate over the Trans Pacific Partnership. Should Obama’s ISIS authorization request emerge from the shadows we’ll have another over America’s use of military force to advance its interests around the world. Both will present Clinton, along with many others, with hard choices. Because of Sanders all those choices will be harder to finesse.

The great debate is over the economy. For 20 years Clinton has been an apostle of information technology, finance capital and globalization. In the nineties it was called the new economy and everybody was for it. Everybody but Bernie Sanders, that is. As far back as 1983 Sanders was planting the seeds of the new "new economy."

As mayor of Burlington, Sanders helped set up the Burlington Community Land Trust, a device for making housing more affordable by selling the building but holding the land in trust. Now called the Champlain Housing Trust, it is the largest such enterprise in the country and a beacon to people working to find new ways to build a more just, democratic, humane and sustainable economy. The old "new economy" couldn’t have a better spokesperson than Clinton. It’s hard to imagine how the new "new economy" could have one much better than Sanders. I’d say let the games begin, but as Sanders reminds us, it isn’t a game. It’s a very, very serious debate.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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