Behind the scenes with Bernie Sanders: Three days in Iowa that explain why Hillary's fading and the Dems have a new front-runner

If you want to understand the Sanders shocker, just go to Iowa and listen to his ideas and Hillary's platitudes

Published September 20, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

 Bernie Sanders (AP/Charlie Riedel)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Charlie Riedel)

“And now let me tell you something that no other candidate for president will tell you. And that is no matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country. They will not be able to succeed because the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors, is so great that no president alone can stand up to them. That is the truth. People may be uncomfortable about hearing it, but that is the reality.”

— Bernie Sanders, Friday, Aug. 14, Clear Lake, Iowa

Judging by the low murmurs and restless bodies witnessed in the seconds before the senator from Vermont reached his next applause line, this sentiment did indeed leave the patrons of the Wing Ding Dinner a bit unsettled. The Iowa Democrats inside the Surf Ballroom—a sweaty music hall where ceiling fans spun to no effect at the top of a barrel roof, and where Buddy Holly played his final show before he chartered the private plane that killed him in 1959—had just finished cheering their heads off for Hillary Clinton’s platitudes, and now regarded the man onstage with a mixture of confusion and annoyance.

The warning didn’t suit the festive mood. Hillary had satisfied their need for a savior, and now this relentless 73-year-old, hunched forward and gripping both sides of the podium as he bellowed in a strong Brooklyn accent, was insisting that the situation in America might require more than manufactured optimism—it might require actual political revolution.

In fact, the Wing Ding audience represented Sanders’ first lukewarm crowd in some time. Since announcing his candidacy in an email to supporters in late April—a candidacy that was first dismissed as a fringe protest movement, eventually seen as a minor force that might push Hillary to the left, and is now being recognized as a legitimate threat to the front-runner—Sanders has gathered momentum at a rate that is either impressive or alarming, depending on your perspective.

His events have drawn the primary season’s largest turnouts, and he’s banked donations from more Americans—400,000 and counting—than any other candidate. Just days before coming to Iowa, a poll showed him leading Clinton in the critical New Hampshire race for the first time, and less than a month later, he’d take his first lead in Iowa. Meanwhile, national polls indicate that he’s cut Clinton’s national lead in half since June—a trajectory that looks very similar to Barack Obama’s rise in 2008.

This surprising grass-roots success, without the aid of a super PAC or corporate millions, stems from a very simple message: Wealth inequality is destroying the American middle class and leading to increased job loss and poverty.

He has a few favorite stats he likes to deploy to illustrate the scope of the problem, starting with the fact that in America, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. He hammers this message home as his rabid crowds rage along: One family, the Waltons, owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent; the 14 wealthiest individuals have added $156 billion to their fortunes in the past two years, which is more than the combined assets of the bottom 130 million Americans; 56 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent; the Koch brothers, as a result of the Citizens United decision, will spend more money on the 2016 election than either Republicans or Democrats.

To Sanders, almost every other problem plaguing the country is related to this “rigged economy,” including a minimum wage of $7.25, the loss of manufacturing jobs, childhood poverty, crumbling infrastructure, college debt, racial injustice, high unemployment and incarceration rates, the death of trade unions, attacks on social security, a broken electoral system, destabilizing wars, and even the destructive march of climate change.

His platform is built on redressing this flawed system, and the ideas have resonated with a disenchanted progressive base, for whom the discovery of the two-term senator, eight-term House representative, and former mayor came on like a revelation—here was a man who had been preaching the same sermon for almost 40 years, voting with his conscience, and still, somehow, winning elections.

For those on the left who watched an obstructionist Congress spit Obama’s attempts at compromise back in his face for eight years, it’s easy to see a candidate like Sanders as the unrepentant voice of real change—someone who views the political right as an instrument of billionaires, and has the bona fides to oppose them with the knowledge that the mythical “middle ground” has become a dangerous fantasy.

His résumé precedes him—Sanders voted against the first Iraq War, against the Patriot Act, and against the second Iraq War. He opposed NAFTA before it was signed, and he opposed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act that kept commercial and investment banks separate, and may have prevented the financial crisis. He wasn’t silent in his opposition—on YouTube, you can watch Sanders predict exactly what would happen in the aftermath of Iraq in a speech from 2002, or see him berate Alan Greenspan for the economic ideology that would lead to the recession, or witness his eight-hour filibuster after Obama extended the Bush tax cuts in 2010.

It’s a record that distinguishes Sanders from most of his Democratic colleagues, including Hillary Clinton, who voted for both the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, accepts corporate money from super PACs, supported the trade agreements, and opposed gay marriage until 2013. To the hordes of progressives flocking to his side, Sanders is a rare phenomenon—a politician who walks the walk.

“This is it,” reads a typical post on Sanders’ independently run Reddit page, which now exceeds 100,000 subscribers. “I’ve been cynical and adverse to the American political process for years. I am registering to vote for the first time, for the only man who has ever given me hope in America and American politics.”

When he finished his address at the Wing Ding, Sanders gathered a stack of loose papers from the podium—he writes his own speeches on yellow legal pads and keeps his notes in a manila folder—and left the stage to polite applause. His warning made very little impact in a room dominated by Clinton supporters, and there was nothing to do but move on to the next stop.

Four days later, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes posted the video of that warning on Facebook. This time, people paid attention—in less than 24 hours, it had accumulated more than 3 million views.

The Sanderistas

“The truth is, I plead guilty to loving to do meetings like this. I’ve done hundreds of them in my home state of Vermont. And the reason I love them is what we are doing today is something very radical, something that is not done much in America. We are practicing democracy.”

— Sanders, at a town meeting in Boone, Iowa

I spent three days following Sanders across Iowa—driving past corn fields and silos and hay bales and Casey’s General Stores, and thinking about the accidents of electoral politics that made this state of 3 million people so important. Eager to embrace the moment, the Sanders die-hards were aching to tell their stories, and some of them even approached me before I could seek them out.

I met Hannah Austin, a 28-year-old elementary school music teacher from Ames, Iowa, with $20,000 in student debt. She grew up in Chicago with a Korean mother and a Navy veteran father, and relates to the message that wealth inequality is hampering the middle class. She doesn’t trust Hillary because of the way she’s changed her mind on important issues, and also believes she’s trying to hide her mistakes in the email scandal.

Caleb Humphrey, 30, an Iraq War veteran living in Boone County and attending school on the GI bill, has regained a sense of his old Army camaraderie volunteering for Sanders—he told me proudly that he’d placed 2,016 phone calls in the past week. He sees Sanders as the only anti-billionaire candidate, and because he lives in a county with a Monsanto corn production plant where fertilizer runoff has frequently raised nitrates in the water supply to levels that can be fatal to infants, he has a good reason to mistrust the economic upper class. And as you’d imagine, Iran is no small issue in his mind; he appreciates Sanders’ record on Iraq, which he saw as an avoidable war.

“I tell everyone, I’ve been to war, I’ve seen war, and it’s hell,” he told me. “I don’t want anyone else to see it.

June McGowan is a retired bank teller and substitute teacher, 70 years old, who realized there was actual hope for Sanders when she went to a rally in Ames and saw young people engaged in the message. She fears Republicans who speak about taking away Social Security and Medicare, and she sees Hillary Clinton as a politician, not a “caring person.”

The crowds were more diverse than I expected, and I was particularly interested in hearing from Sanders’ African-American supporters on the Black Lives Matter protests that interrupted Sanders in Seattle and caused a minor media storm.

The opinions ran the gamut. Darryl Bonner, a national Green Party representative who traveled to Sanders’ Iowa City headquarters opening, has known and liked Sanders for 10 years, and was adamantly against the actions of the Seattle activists.

“I was really upset with them,” he said. “They were barking up the wrong tree. They need to be going to the Trump rallies, the Bush rallies. Why are they bothering Bernie? And I’m a black man, but he’s a friend. You don’t attack a friend. I was livid and disheartened.”

Bernard Clayton, a member of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus, took a softer stance.

“I would not personally have interrupted him, I don’t like that kind of thing,” he said. “But I do understand that tactic. The history of black people in this country, sometimes being polite and silent doesn’t get us what we want. I’m not going to condemn them for doing that. And you can’t do that with Clinton because she’s got Secret Service people.”

But Mathany Ahmed, a 22-year-old student of Sudanese heritage who came to the Iowa City rally with her two younger sisters, had her belief in Sanders solidified by the event.

“I think they were fully justified,” she said of the protesters. “A lot of people were upset because they didn’t think it was tactical enough, but at the end of the day he came out with a new racial justice platform and added a young black woman to his campaign. He learned from it, and handled it really, really well.”

Ahmed’s position seems to be the most logical, especially when a recent Gallup poll showed that two-thirds of black voters aren’t “familiar” with Sanders—any inroad into that demographic, even if it started out on contentious terms, is better than ignorance, which only benefits Clinton.

As it stands, she holds a sizable advantage with minority voters and women, and if that coalition holds, it will be impossible for Sanders to sustain his momentum beyond the two early primaries in the predominantly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s no surprise that his campaign responded so quickly to the BLM demands, hiring Symone Sanders as national press secretary releasing a comprehensive racial justice platform. The conflict presented an opportunity to infiltrate Clinton’s base, and it’s not clear how many of those will come along.

A Hillary Clinton Speech, in Five Movements

“Does she support the trans-Pacific trade deal? Under certain circumstances. Reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banks? She’s going to talk about it — at some point. Building the Keystone XL pipeline? She said weighing in wouldn’t be responsible given her previous involvement on the issue. A carbon tax? The revolving door between Wall Street and regulators? Nothing. And nothing.”

— Ann Linskey, Boston Globe, Aug. 12

In the moments before the Wing Ding, about 100 Clinton supporters stood outside the venue and chanted across North Shore Drive at 100 Martin O’Malley supporters. “I-O-W-A,” they yelled, with an almost fascistic intensity, “Hill-uh-ree, all the way!” When Clinton took the stage, they flooded the venue to instigate standing ovations at the appropriate moments. This is what they heard:

Movement 1: Pandering

“It’s so great to be back in Iowa,” she began, addressing the state that gave Barack Obama his first critical primary victory in 2008 and dealt her own campaign a crushing blow. In full folksy enthusiasm mode, she went on to praise Tom Harkin, the Iowa senator who had just become the most recent congressperson to endorse her campaign, Harkin’s “legendary steak fry,” the chicken wings at the dinner, the Surf Ballroom, and Democrats in general (“now as the song says, ‘I can still remember how that music used to make me smile,’ and if you look around this room, all of you Democrats make me smile too!”).

She stopped short of adopting a fake regional accent—a welcome change from a South Carolina campaign stop in May, where she earned the mockery of pundits with an affected drawl: “I been colorin’ my hair for years!”

Movement 2: Humor/Defensiveness

“By the way, you may have seen that I recently launched a SnapChat account,” she read from her teleprompter. “I love it—those messages disappear all by themselves!”

Later, she got serious about Benghazi and the charges that she’d sent confidential information in her private emails. Benghazi had been debunked even by the Republicans, she said, and the emails are a partisan game; she wants to answer questions before Congress and publish 55,000 pages publicly; she refuses to dishonor the memory of fallen soldiers by getting down in the mud and playing politics. She didn’t address the awkward fact that her servers contained confidential emails, despite an earlier claim that she’d kept the two separate.

Movement 3: Foreign Policy/Courting Obama

Her first comments of substance came on the topic of Iran. She credited the pressure she applied to Ahmadinejad as secretary of state for the nuclear arms restrictions agreement Obama and John Kerry just brokered, and went on to praise Obama effusively.

It seemed like a strange choice for an opening topic, until you considered the potential end goals: Creating a contrast with Sanders (how can a socialist be tough on our enemies). It will be crucial to establish a foreign policy battleground if the race tightens, since she’s on shakier turf domestically. Second, and more important, she was jockeying for an Obama endorsement—arguably the top prize in this primary.

Movement 4: Platitudes

The bulk of her speech consisted of throwing red meat to the dogs, and she earned sustained applause for pleasant, but ultimately empty utterances like:

“She made sure I internalized the creed of our Methodist faith, that we all have a responsibility to do all the good you can for all the people you can in all the ways you can.”

The parade of happy pronouncements continued--women’s rights, racial justice, economic equality—and nobody seemed to mind that almost every triumphant decree lacked a corresponding policy.

Movement 5: Actual Platform

Hillary referenced exactly two policy measures in a 26-minute speech. The first was a nod to her student-debt reduction plan, which she’d released that week, possibly in response to Sanders’ own plan to make public colleges free. The second was about Citizens United. Fighting through a coughing fit, she condemned the Supreme Court decision and said she would abolish it with a constitutional amendment “if necessary.” Lost in this message was the fact she received millions of corporate dollars through nominally independent super PACs, which wouldn’t be possible without Citizens United.

None of this, of course, makes her particularly unique or unseemly in the world of politics, where pandering and evasion are time-honored traditions. The complication comes in the contrast—Sanders’ artless style makes everyone else look like hypocrites and frauds.

The Authenticity of a Lunatic Fringe Socialist

“The problem isn’t that Bernie Sanders is a crazy-pants cuckoo bird. It’s that we’ve all become so accustomed to stage-managed, focus-group-driven candidates that his authenticity comes across as lunacy.”

— Jon Stewart

There is a directness to Sanders, a matter-of-fact quality, that makes him an ideal vehicle for delivering a message of wealth inequality. He speaks with a kind of raw tenacity, and the only difference between his conversational and oratorical voice is volume.

This is more critical than people believe in the aftermath of Obama, whose soaring rhetoric was like a drug whose effect diminished over time. Sanders is banking on the idea that the optimism of 2008, based on lofty ideals and restoring a temporarily broken system, is not duplicable. That worked twice, but now he hopes that America is ready for a realist approach—that voters have become attenuated to concepts like “hope,” and disenchanted with the total lack of compromise at the top levels of government, which has torpedoed any belief that a charismatic personality can rescue America. The current situation calls for trench warfare, and there’s nobody better suited to that task than Sanders.

Any presidential election has a superficial quality to it, but as Rachel Maddow pointed out recently on MSNBC, merely looking presidential, in the patrician sense that John Kerry and Mitt Romney embodied, means little. Instead, a modern candidate has to pass the "phony test." The history of recent electoral losers tells the story—Romney got caught dismissing half of America, McCain lost his maverick credentials when he added a fringe lunatic from Alaska to his ticket, Kerry was a flip-flopper, and Gore was a snob. There are a thousand reasons why one candidate loses and another wins, but personality defects are no small part of the formula.

When you hear progressives laud Sanders’ “authenticity,” it goes deeper than his political record. The judgment takes aesthetics into account—with his guileless manner, and the way his face defaults into a dogged, curmudgeonly glare, you get the sense that it would never occur to him to tell anything but the truth. Just like it would never occur to him to change his positions on wealth inequality over three decades, or to accept money from super PACs, or to shy away from the word “socialist.”

It boils down to one critical factor—unlike every other candidate, in either party, Sanders doesn’t seem to care if he loses. While the rest of the field prioritizes victory, he’ll stay loyal to his favorite theme, even at the cost of defeat.

Which makes him a terrifying outsider in the Democratic primaries. There’s no good way to attack Sanders personally; how do you impugn a man whose idiosyncrasies are his strength, and who, as far as progressives are concerned, has rarely taken a false ideological step?

The Populist

“There’s something else that FDR said…1936, he was re-nominated for his second term and he stood in front of the Democratic convention, and in so many words, I don’t have the quote exactly, but he called them the economic royalists. That was the name of the billionaire class back in the ‘30s. ‘These economic royalists, they hate my guts, never have the hated someone as much as they hate me, and I welcome their hatred.’

"And let me echo that today. If the Koch brothers and the billionaire class hate my guts, then I welcome their hatred, because I am going to stand with working families.”

— Sanders, during a Q&A session in Boone, Iowa

Before long, I had practically memorized Sanders’ stump speech, and was tuned in for any variation. At the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, he drew the largest crowd of any candidate to the soap box—Hillary visited the fair but declined to speak, possibly to avoid crowd comparisons—and after watching Donald Trump’s helicopter fly away in the distance, he joked that he’d left his own chopper at home.

In Cedar Rapids on Sunday morning, after railing on the way billionaires have purchased candidates through Citizens United, someone from the crowd yelled out, “Give ‘em hell, Bernie!”

“And they deserve it!” he shouted back. “As Harry Truman said, they think it’s hell, but it’s really just the truth!”

When he spoke in front of 75 workers at a firefighters’ union hall, and one of the attendees responded to a question about America’s infrastructure by yelling out, “It sucks!” Sanders just nodded. “Yes,” he deadpanned, “that is the technical term.”

He hit his stride at the Democratic picnic in Eldridge, Iowa, on Sunday, where a sweaty, vociferous crowd of hundreds shouted out his own lines like fans at a rock concert, and then surrounded him on his way to the getaway vehicle—a Dodge Journey with Minnesota plates driven by his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, and carrying his wife, Jane, and his other top adviser, communications director Michael Briggs—as a park ranger vainly tried to clear a path.

The weekend ended in Dubuque, where he spoke before 2,000 people at Loras College. By then, he’d added a bit of optimism to his spiel on the difficulty of changing a broken system.

“If we are serious about transforming America, it goes beyond electing a president,” he told the crowd, before enumerating the real power of the huge corporate interests. “The only way we transform this country, the only way we make government work for the middle class and not for billionaires is when millions of people stand up and give these guys an offer they can’t refuse.”

“We cannot be a nation, a culture, and a world, in which we worship money,” he continued. “That cannot be what life is about.”

Bernie and the Media

“To a significant degree, the corporate media will talk about everything except the most important issues facing the American people.”

— Sanders, in Dubuque, Iowa

In an interview with Vox Media, Sanders said that his big fear when entering the race was not the idea of losing, but that if he lost too quickly, it would damage his ideas and make them politically non-viable for future candidates—effectively setting the cause back by years. He’s passed that threshold now, and even if he never bridges the gap to Clinton, he’s planted a flag for the neo-populist movement.

None of which means that he’s enjoying a more collegial relationship with the media. The topic of journalistic sensationalism made a cameo in most of his Iowa appearances, and he joked in Dubuque that if he tripped and fell onstage, it would be the day’s biggest story.

At a brief media availability session following that speech—his last stop in Iowa—he adopted a confrontational tone with the small pack of reporters as his fans filed in from the gymnasium for one last glimpse. He took umbrage at a Wall Street Journal writer for asking a question about Hillary Clinton and not focusing on “the issues impacting American people.”

“The issue I want to be talking about is the collapse of the American middle class,” he continued. “Is that an important issue? The need to create millions of decent paying jobs. The obscenity of the kind of level of income and wealth equality. The reason our campaign is doing well is because people are responding to those issues. So I am not going to get into the game of sitting around attacking Hillary Clinton.”

A minute later, a young reporter behind a camera asked this: “How do you reconcile being the anti-establishment candidate with being a career politician?”

It had a definite "gotcha" tone, and Sanders ignored it until another reporter came to her defense. What unfolded next, in a classic Sanders monologue, might have been the closest thing I’ve seen to an Aaron Sorkin script playing out in real life. He pointedly faced the camera, as if choosing to speak directly to the people rather than the corrupt media standing between them, and rattled off an improvised defense.

“I’ve been in office for 25 years,” he began. “As a candidate for mayor of Burlington, I became the first independent ever elected in the city’s history by taking on the entire ruling class of the city of Burlington? Does that sound like a career politician? When I began my political career, I got 2 percent of the vote, and then 1 percent of the vote. Last election, I got 71 percent of the vote. Running for office, representing working people, taking on Wall Street, taking on the military-industrial complex, taking on private insurance companies, taking on pharmaceutical industry. I don’t think that makes me a career politician—I think that makes me a candidate who is standing up for working people and prepared to take on the big-money interests in this country.”

Behind us, a small crowd had trickled in from the gym. They cheered when he finished, and they stayed even after he walked out the door a minute later. Hearing them behind me, you could sense hope, and you could sense desperation. They cheered because of belief, but they stayed because of fear. Beneath the joy, there was the darker sense that Sanders might represent the last chance for progressive politics in America. When this feeling goes away, it doesn’t come back.

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