Will Bernie run in 2020? Former campaign manager: He "has more energy ... than people half his age"

Former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver on his new book, what went wrong in 2016 — and a possible 2020 campaign

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 21, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders (AP/Toby Talbot)
Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders (AP/Toby Talbot)

If you voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 -- and quite likely even if you didn't -- I highly recommend Jeff Weaver's new book "How Bernie Won: Inside the Revolution That's Taking Back Our Country -- and Where We Go From Here." Weaver was the campaign manager for Sanders' insurgent progressive campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which started out as a quixotic long shot and came startlingly close to wresting control of the party away from the moderate, pragmatic politics exemplified by Hillary Clinton.

Weaver's book works equally well as a chronicle of the most full-throated progressive presidential campaigns in modern memory -- which singlehandedly turned "socialism" into a popular search term -- and as a call to arms for future activism. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Weaver about "How Bernie Won" and his thoughts on the 2020 presidential election.

Many progressives still feel angry over what they perceived to have been Hillary Clinton either "cheating" Bernie Sanders out of the nomination in 2016 or "rigging" the nomination process against him, and that has caused considerable friction within the Democratic Party. Your book makes a persuasive argument that, yes, she did behave in an inappropriate way during the campaign. How will this affect future Democratic campaigns? 

Well, as we discussed in the book, following the primary season and before the convention, there was a Unity Reform Commission which has now put forward a series of reforms that are under active consideration by the Democratic National Committee. Tom Perez, the current chair, to his credit is supportive of those reforms, as is the vice-chair. We are very hopeful that these reforms can be passed and that they will make important, substantive changes to the primary and electoral process and can also help build a confidence among voters that, in fact, the process will be done fairly in the future.

You’re saying that this would not only cause substantive changes, but it could help repair the Democratic Party brand?

One hundred percent. I was on the reform commission, appointed by Bernie Sanders. There were Clinton appointees on the commission. There were committee members appointed by the DNC chair. We came out with unanimous recommendations for reform, including reducing the role of superdelegates in the process and other measures which would open up the process to more voters. . . . I think it will go a long way toward helping to heal some of these breaches.

You mention a speech given by Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1944, the section of his State of the Union address called the Economic Bill of Rights. One of the points you make is that when people referred to Sanders' "democratic socialist" ideology, they made it seem like it was something new to the American scene. As you point out, these ideas have been promoted by many American leaders, including one of its most revered presidents. Why do you think this isn’t more widely known?

Well, let me say this. In many ways, what Bernie Sanders is trying to accomplish nationally is the unfinished business that FDR pointed out in that State of the Union speech. This is really a foundational document for the modern Democratic Party and the unfinished business of the party as we move forward. What happened in the 1990s is that we went on a right-wing deviation from that historical trajectory that came out of the New Deal administration, to a pro-corporate, much more conservative Democratic Party.

In many ways, as the book discusses, the 2016 race was a playing out of the conflict within the party between a majority who want to see the party return to its historical mission and those who want to cling to the failed neoliberal experiments of the 1990s. A lot of people have been raised in the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] Democratic Party since the 1990s. As you know, the Democratic Party prior to that had not held the presidency since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

For many people, what they see in the Bill Clinton era of the Democratic Party is their experience of it. But that is not the reality. This party has a proud history and a proud tradition and has a lot of work left undone, as articulated back in 1944 by FDR. There are many of us who want to see that work completed.

I want to pivot to the possibility of Bernie Sanders running for president in 2020. What do you think he could do to assuage concerns among voters about his age? He will be 79 years old in 2020.

Anybody who follows Bernie Sanders for one day and sees his schedule, and how rigorous it is, and how he drives everybody around him, works them into the ground with the amount of work and energy he has, I think they would understand that his chronological age is just not really a measure of his true age.

I would say this was true back in 2016 when the campaign started. A lot of reporters had a story in the can about how Bernie couldn’t keep up and wasn’t able to carry out a regular schedule. Within a week, those stories were thrown in the trash can because he was putting those reporters, many of whom were much younger than he was -- in fact all of them were — he was wearing them out with the intensity of his campaign schedule.

In fact, I remember early on, one of the reporters asked me, “When do we stop for lunch? I don’t see it on the schedule.” I said, “Bernie doesn’t stop for lunch. He works at lunch. If you want lunch, you better bring it with you.” That’s just one example. Bernie Sanders is an extremely energetic and vigorous person, and has more energy, I would say, than people half his age.           

Do you think Sanders could provide medical documents for those who might want proof that if he were elected he could serve a full term?

I’m certain that he could. Yes.

You discuss how during the Democratic National Convention the information that came from WikiLeaks was released, and how it caused tremendous disillusionment among the Sanders delegates. How do you feel ethically about what WikiLeaks did in terms of releasing these stolen emails?

Look, I think the stealing of emails, the releasing of stolen emails is an abhorrent act and should not have been done, clearly. Those emails were writing with the expectation of privacy and I’m sure the Clinton people would feel the same way I do, which is no one would want their emails released, and rightfully so.

Do you believe that Julian Assange received those emails from Russia?

There’s certainly evidence to indicate that Julian Assange has ties to Russia. How the emails came to him? I obviously don't have personal knowledge, but clearly Assange has ties to Russia.

My final question is both for you and inviting you to speculate about Bernie Sanders. Who are your political heroes? Because if Sanders becomes president in 2020 -- I think of how Donald Trump worships Andrew Jackson. I don’t think he actually knows much about Andrew Jackson, but clearly, honestly, what's more frightening is the possibility that he does know a lot about him.

Right, and still loves him. That’s exactly right.

But my question is, who would be Bernie Sanders’ Andrew Jackson? Who would be your Andrew Jackson?

Well, Bernie Sanders has spoken about this on many occasions. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is clearly, I would say, the formative political influence in Bernie Sanders' life. But he has identified other heroes: Eugene V. Debs, who was a [socialist] candidate for president at the early part of the 20th century, is also a hero of his. I would put those two people out as heroes of Bernie Sanders.

On my side, certainly FDR. I consider him to be a great leader and founder of the modern Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders is certainly, I would say, a great hero of mine. Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, was certainly an extremely influential person in terms of my politics, particularly as a Catholic.  

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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