Sanders wows Austin: Watch out Hillary, here comes Bernie

Sen. Bernie Sanders at Travis County Democratic Dinner (photo by David Thomas)

Sen. Bernie Sanders at Travis County Democratic Dinner (photo by David Thomas)

 

Good morning Austin:

Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, was in Austin for a couple of days last week, the tail end of a trip that took him to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, to see if there is the interest out here in America for him to run for president in 2016.

Sanders would be a novel candidate for the Democratic nomination for president because, for starters, he is not a Democrat, though he caucuses with them in the Senate. He is, in fact, the longest serving Independent in congressional history.

Also, he is an avowed socialist, unlike most Democrats, who are only accused socialists.

He is from Vermont, among the smallest states, which, year by year, vies with Maine for being the whitest state in the nation.

And listen Texas, Vermont is not to be trifled with.

From an excellent Nigel Parry profile of Sanders from December in New York Magazine:

To know why we may soon be living in a however unlikely Bernie Sanders moment, it is useful to know Vermont, the state Sanders has represented in Congress for 24 years, the last eight as a senator. It is helpful to understand that long before Sam Houston and the loutish Lone Star State, before the “patriot” secessionists of Arizona, there was the Republic of Vermont, a sovereign nation with its own constitution. Signed in a tavern during a raging thunderstorm in 1777, the Vermont constitution forbade slavery and guaranteed suffrage to male non-landowners. In other words, it offered more freedom than the famous document promulgated by the vaunted U.S. Founding Fathers and ratified in 1789.

Judging by his reception in Austin, Sanders will be running for president. And, for a number of reasons I’ll explain as we go along, I think Sanders could prove a problem for Hillary Clinton, especially in the early going.

In Austin, Sanders packed them in by the hundreds at a Town Meeting at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall on Ben White on Tuesday night. It was an ebullient crowd of union members and a virtual who’s who of progressive Austin politics. He was introduced by Jim Hightower.

And then, the next night, he sold out the Travis County Democratic Party’s annual Johnson-Bentsen-Richards Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel. (One may recall that last year’s JBR dinner at the Four Seasons, featuring the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Wendy Davis, was “closed press,” except for a Texas Tribune livestream, because of an apparent effort by the Davis campaign and/or the party to tamp down any chance, however unlikely, of her succeeding.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders at Travis County Democratic Dinner (photo by David Thomas)

Sen. Bernie Sanders at Travis County Democratic Dinner (photo by David Thomas)

I interviewed Sanders in between shows, on Wednesday afternoon on the patio of Serrano’s on Red River. There he was holding court – or, in his curmudgeonly style, suffering through – a succession of interviews with local press. I was preceded by Chris Hooks and Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer and followed by Mary Tuma of the Austin Chronicle, whose Q and A with Sanders, you can read here.

I had written about Sanders before. A long time ago. In 1990, I traveled to Vermont to do a story on the possibility that a Brooklyn-born Jewish socialist, coming off eight years as mayor of Burlington – the Austin of Vermont – could become the sole congressman for the state of Vermont. He had run for the seat two years previous and lost, but this time he would win.

Sanders was generous with his time, and my overriding memory of reporting that story was a moment that came during a drive on a glorious spring day with Sanders to Hanover, N.H., where he was going to speak to students at Dartmouth. We must have been an hour into our drive – and I guess I had aleady been talking to him on and off for a couple of days –  when, Sanders, who was driving, turned to me and asked, “Can we stop talking about politics?”

It was a briefly searing moment. Gee, I thought, shamefully, I had bored Bernie Sanders into submission. Wow, I thought proudly, I had worn Bernie Sanders out.

Anyway, a quarter century later I’m over that, and I need not have worried this time about wearing Sanders out. Like a waiter at Katz’s Deli in New York, if you pause too long between questions with Sanders, he’ll clear the table – including your half-uneaten pastrami sandwich – and seat the next customer.

Anyway, I began by reading to him a paragraph from a recent Boston Globe editorial, urging Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president, because, at the very least, Hillary Clinton should have a formidable sparring partner to get her into shape.

Here is how the Globe editorial began:

Democrats would be making a big mistake if they let Hillary Clinton coast to the presidential nomination without real opposition, and, as a national leader, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren can make sure that doesn’t happen. While Warren has repeatedly vowed that she won’t run for president herself, she ought to reconsider. And if Warren sticks to her refusal, she should make it her responsibility to help recruit candidates to provide voters with a vigorous debate on her signature cause, reducing income inequality, over the next year.

The clock is ticking: Presidential candidates need to hire staff, raise money, and build a campaign operation. Although Clinton hasn’t officially declared her candidacy, she’s scooping up support from key party bigwigs and donors, who are working to impose a sense of inevitability about her nomination. Unfortunately, the strategy’s working: Few candidates are coming off the Democrats’ depleted bench to challenge Clinton. Neither declared candidate Jim Webb, a former Virginia senator, nor rumored candidate Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, represent top-tier opponents; independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has also hinted he might enter the Democratic primaries, but it’s difficult to imagine him thriving on the trail.

OK. Before I tell you Sanders’ reaction, here was mine when I read it.

This has less to do with the Globe thinking America, or the Democratic Party, or Hillary Clinton, needs Elizabeth Warren to run for president, than the Globe wanting to be sure it had a home state candidate it could call its own, have special access to, put out a staff-produced book on, etc.  Massachusetts had JFK in 1960,  Ted Kennedy’s challenge of Jimmy Carter in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988, John Kerry in 2004, Mitt Romney in the 2008 primaries, and as the 2012 nominee. A presidential election cycle without a Massachusetts candidate? Unthinkable.
Anyway, I could tell as I was reading the excerpt to Sanders that he was already bored by it. He said he hadn’t read it, somebody had told him about it, and, “I could care less.”

“As usual, I won’t answer your question,” he said.” It s a good question. Now we’ll ignore it.”

Very good answer, and reason one why I think he could be a formidable candidate.

He doesn’t care about any of the gossipy, horse race, process kind of questions that dominate political coverage, and he makes you embarrassed you asked those questions. All he wants to talk about is what he wants to talk about – income inequality and the “grotesque and obscene” concentration of wealth and income in America. Voters – Democratic primary and caucus voters at any rate – will like that and it will keep him from being embroiled in the petty corruptions and distractions of hour-by-hour press coverage.

Instead, Sanders suggested that I write a letter to the Globe based on his Austin visit, disabusing them of the notion that “it’s difficult to imagine him thriving on the trail.””I was blown away,” he said by the crowd the night before at the union hall. “When we drove in we couldn’t get the damn car in the lot, it was so crowded.”This was true.

At the Bernie Sanders Town Meeting at IBEW Local Union 520 Hall, Austin.

At the Bernie Sanders Town Meeting at IBEW Local Union 520 Hall, Austin.

And, he said, it was entirely organized by local volunteers.”We didn’t spend a nickel on this thing.”

“We were in LA on Sunday. Five hundred people packed into a union hall. In Las Vegas, the Culinary Workers, 300 people came out. It was mobbed.”

“There is a media mentality that lives in its own world, that keeps listening to each other and keeps repeating the same stuff over and over again and they don’t get  outside into the real world. It used to bother me a lot. It bothers me a whole lot less now.”

He continued:

There is a world out there that the media doesn’t understand – they don’t leave their offices – where people are sick and tired of working longer hours for lower wages, not being able to send their kids to college,  not being able to afford health care at the same time as the wealthiest people are doing unbelievably well, and people know, they may not be economists, but they know that there’s something wrong when the top tenth of one percent owning more than the bottom 90 percent, and when 99 percent of all new income is going into the hands of the one percent, which is currently the case. And that’s the message I take around the country and that is the message that I believe people are and will respond to. We need a government that represents all the people and not just the billionaire class, and that’s what I’ve spent my life fighting for and that’s what I’ll continue to fight for whether or not the Boston Globe likes it.

In 2010, Sanders,conducted an eight-and-a-half hour filibuster against President Obama’s proposed tax cut compromise (he was spelled only briefly by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu) that, Sanders said, would provide “tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires who don’t need it.”Here’s the last half hour of that filibuster, which he turned into a book, The Speech.

Three years later, Sen. Ted Cruz conducted a 21-hour, 19-minute speech on the Senate floor denouncing Obamacare.

Somewhere in that speech, and I can’t remember whether it came before or after Cruz read Green Eggs and Ham, as a bedtime story to his girls back in Houston, Cruz quoted the writer Ayn Rand: “There are two sides to every issue. One side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice.”

Or, as Cruz put it: “I would far prefer a Senate with 10 Bernie Sanders and 10 Mike Lees to a Senate where the views, the actual commitments, are blurred by obfuscation.” Lee, a Utah Republican, is Cruz’s closest ally in the Senate.

I mentioned that comment to Sanders.

“Yes and no,” he said of Cruz’s notion of a Sanders-Cruz Senate utopia.

“Unfortunately, it’s not quite that,” Sanders said. “We think that we have a chance to actually get through to some of Ted Cruz’s supporters.”

Really?

From Sanders:

Some of those people are working class people who want to be able to send their kids to college, who are as disgusted with Wall Street as I am, who understand that there is something wrong when both political parties are heavily dominated by big money, and I think what we will do, if I run, is to introduce members of the tea party to the people who founded the tea party, the Koch brothers, and to tell the tea party members what the agenda of the Koch brothers is, which is, end Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and also to have unfettered free trade. I don’t believe that is what most tea party members support.

Which is not talked about – because the media never writes it. The media says, “the Koch brothers are going to spend an enormous amount of money.” But, what do they stand for? What do they want. What does the most powerful political organization in the country want? And they’re very clear:  End Social Security. End Medicare. End Medicaid. End federal aid to education. Among other things. And give tax breaks to billionaires.

In my heart of hearts, I believe there is very strong support, very strong majority support to take on the issue of income and wealth ineauality. In the last two years, the wealthiest 14  people in this country have seen their wealth increase by $157  billion. Increase. That is more wealth than the bottom 40 % of the American people. Ninety-nine percent of all new income goes to the top one percent. Very few people believe that is what the American economy should be. I think an agenda which talks about the need to bring millions of decent paying jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, pay equity for women, dealing with overtime so workers get time-and-a-half. Dealing with climate change. Ending our disastrous trade policies. Joining the rest of the world by having health care for all as a right  I think that’s an agenda supported by the vast majority of the American people. Demanding that the rich and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes. All of that is supported by the American people.

What I don’t know, and the reason I’m on this trip is “OK, you’ve agreed, are you prepared to actively get involved in a campaign, are you prepared to contribute a  few bucks to that campaign?” That’s what I have to ascertain.

At the Bernie Sanders Town Meeting at the IBEW Hall in Austin

At the Bernie Sanders Town Meeting at the IBEW Hall in Austin

Sanders said this is “one of many trips” he has taken testing the waters, and next up are probably return trips to Iowa and New Hampshire.

It’s obviously self serving, but I like the people of Iowa. It’s very much like Vermont. It is very down-to-earth, working class, ordinary people, who are very involved in politics because of the unique nature of their state politically.

New Hampshire is a neighbor of ours. We know the people there fairly, so those are two states, if I run, I think we could do pretty well.

That’s the second reason Sanders could pose a problem for Clinton.

He has been doing this oil-on-water, Brooklyn boy of the Green Mountains thing for decades with great success, by virtue, it seems, of changing almost nothing about his politics or his persona. His practice in Vermont does give him an edge in rural, small-town and working class Iowa and New Hampshire.

His being an Independent gives him the option of being as anti-Washington as Ted Cruz, but from the left, and his being an out socialist will comfort to the activist left that he won’t wilt on those commitments either in a general election or if he were elected.

And his not being Elizabeth Warren means he will generate less upfront excitement and attention and journalistic nit-picking, which is all good for sneaking up on Clinton.

When will he decide whether to run?

It has to be done at an appropriate time and it will be done sooner than later, but I want to make the right decision. I don’t want to go forward if there is not the political infrastructure, if there is not the capacity to raise the money we need.

How much is that?

You need to know you can raise several hundred million dollars and then know you’ll be outspent 5- to 10- to-1, but you need a certain amount of money to run a credible campaign.

I mean you’re going to get some wealthier people to contribute, but it’s mostly going to be small individual contributions.

If you check the FEC, I think you will find, I believe I raised a higher percentage of small donations than any other member of the Senate. I think our average donation is about $45. And, at the event we did last night, I think most people paid $25 to get in, so you had 500 or more people in but you end up not raising a huge amount of money. You know Jeb Bush sits down, he leaves with $10 million from a dozen people, for his Super PAC. We had 500 people and end up leaving with $10,000.

Flip side.

Flip side.

Would it make a difference if another candidate enters the race talking about the same issues of inequality?

Who’s talking about it? Look I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I have a record. The woman next door can announce she’s running on these issues. But I’ve been identified with these issues for 30 years and I have a record of achievement, as a mayor, as a congressman, as a United States senator. This is not something that I had my pollsters  – of which I do not have any – go out and  poll the American people and let’s see what issues are relevant and,`Oh, they’re interested in talking about income and wealth inequality, I think I’ll talk about it.’ I’ve been talking about this for decades before other people have been talking about it. This is my life.

In other words, I said to Sanders, you were socialist before it was popular.

That made him laugh. A real, hearty laugh. The sting of him asking me, Can we stop talking about politics, a quarter century earlier, was finally assuaged.

“All right?” Sanders asked, as in, enough already.

One more question. You say you have no pollster, but do you have any smart consultant helping you?

Yeah, he said, “I’ve been working with Tad Devine. he does a pretty god job.”

(For more on Devine, a top tier Democratic consultant who has worked with Sanders for a long time, see this National Journal story from November – This is how Bernie Sanders will run for president.)

And then, one more time from Sanders, “All right? We done?”

No, I said, not quite yet. “We gotta do this video.”

“You should form a union, tell your newspaper that you’re a serious writer and a journalist and not a videographer, and you’re not going to do this.”

Ah yes, working journalists of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your iChains.

“There’s a lot of things I’m not going to do,” I said. Now, please senator, talk into my smart phone.

It came out OK.

“That was good,” I said.

“All right?” Sanders said, as in “goodbye.”

“There was a truck going by,” I said, worried about the ambient noise.

“That’s real life,” Sanders said. “You don’t  have a soundproof studio here. You want to capture real life.”

And, satisfied with that explanation and that I had gotten what I came for, I departed.

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Here is Sander’s 12-step economic agenda, as outlined on the Senate floor in December.

Also, while in Austin, Sanders did Overheard with Evan Smith.

Here’s the audience Q and A.

And here is Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker from last fall, likening Sanders as a potential presidential candidate, to Ron Paul.

Earlier in the day, Sanders had told me that he was thinking about running for President. If he does, he will be the Democratic Party’s Ron Paul: his chance of winning would be infinitesimal, but his presence in the race and his passion about a few key issues would expose vulnerabilities in the front-runner’s record and policies, as Paul did with John McCain and Mitt Romney. Sanders recited for me a list of grievances that progressives still harbor about the Clinton Presidency and made it clear that he would exploit them in his campaign.

“The Clinton Administration worked arm in arm with Alan Greenspan—who is, on economic matters, obviously, an extreme right-wing libertarian—on deregulating Wall Street, and that was a total disaster,” Sanders said. “And then you had the welfare issue, trade policies. You had the Defense of Marriage Act.”

He said that the George W. Bush Presidency “will go down in history as certainly the worst Administration in the modern history of America.” But he has also been disappointed by Obama. “I have been the most vocal opponent of him in the Democratic Caucus,” he told me. In his view, Obama should have kept the grass roots of his 2008 campaign involved after he was elected, and he should have gone aggressively after Wall Street. “His weakness is that either he is too much tied to the big-money interests, or too quote-unquote nice a guy to be taking on the ruling class.”

Sanders, like Paul, has a loyal national following that finances his campaigns. He made life difficult for Democrats in Vermont for many years. In 1988, when he was the mayor of Burlington, he went to the Democratic caucus in the city to support Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaign. One woman, angry with Sanders for his attacks on local Democrats, slapped him in the face. Soon after he won a seat in the House of Representatives, in 1990, some Democrats tried to exclude him from caucusing with them. At a meeting to decide the matter, his opponents humiliated him by reading aloud his previous statements criticizing the Democratic Party.

“I didn’t know that they could track back everything you had ever said,” Sanders told me. “That did not use to be the case. You could certainly get away with a lot of stuff—not anymore!”

The Democrats eventually welcomed him back as a collaborator. In 2006, when he ran for the Senate, the Party supported his candidacy. He now campaigns for those Democrats who are comfortable having an avowed socialist stumping for them, and raises money for others. But he has never been a member of the Democratic Party, and if he decides to run against Hillary in the primary, he will have to join. The alternative would be to run as a third-party candidate in the general election. “It’s a very difficult decision,” he said. “If I was a billionaire, if I was a Ross Perot type, absolutely, I’d run as an independent. Because there is now profound anger at both political parties. But it takes a huge amount of money and organizational time to even get on the ballot in fifty states.”

Most likely, he said, he will run in the Democratic primaries, if he runs at all. I asked him if he thought there was deep dissatisfaction with Hillary on the left. “I don’t think it’s just with Hillary,” he replied. “I think it’s a very deep dissatisfaction with the political establishment.” He insisted that he would run a serious campaign against her, not just “an educational campaign” about his pet issues. “If I run, I certainly would run to win.”

And, finally, here from Sanders Senate website, is his recitation, in all the small print detail,  of  What the Koch Brothers Want:

It is well known that the Koch brothers have provided the major source of funding to the Tea Party and want to repeal the Affordable Care Act.What else do the Koch brothers want?

In 1980, David Koch ran as the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980. 

Let’s take a look at the 1980 Libertarian Party platform

Let’s take a look at the 1980 Libertarian Party platform.

Here are just a few excerpts of the Libertarian Party platform that David Koch ran on in 1980:

“We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.”
“We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.”
“We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services, including those which finance abortion services.”
“We also favor the deregulation of the medical insurance industry.”
“We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system. Pending that repeal, participation in Social Security should be made voluntary.”
“We propose the abolition of the governmental Postal Service. The present system, in addition to being inefficient, encourages governmental surveillance of private correspondence.  Pending abolition, we call for an end to the monopoly system and for allowing free competition in all aspects of postal service.”
“We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.”
“We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.”
“As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.”
“We support repeal of all law which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws.”
“We advocate the complete separation of education and State.  Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”
“We condemn compulsory education laws … and we call for the immediate repeal of such laws.”
“We support the repeal of all taxes on the income or property of private schools, whether profit or non-profit.”
“We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
“We support abolition of the Department of Energy.”
“We call for the dissolution of all government agencies concerned with transportation, including the Department of Transportation.”
“We demand the return of America’s railroad system to private ownership. We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system.”
“We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called “self-protection” equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.”
“We advocate the abolition of the Federal Aviation Administration.”
“We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration.”
“We support an end to all subsidies for child-bearing built into our present laws, including all welfare plans and the provision of tax-supported services for children.”
“We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor’ programs. All these government programs are privacy-invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.”
“We call for the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households.”
“We call for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”
“We call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”
“We support the repeal of all state usury laws.”
In other words, the agenda of the Koch brothers is not only to defund Obamacare.  The agenda of the Koch brothers is to repeal every major piece of legislation that has been signed into law over the past 80 years that has protected the middle class, the elderly, the children, the sick, and the most vulnerable in this country.

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