Will Sanders Get to Lead Revolution He Seeks?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addresses a capacity crowd of nearly 10,000 at the Alliant Energy Center's Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin on July 1, 2015. (Photo: Bernie Sanders campaign)

Will Sanders Get to Lead Revolution He Seeks?

Still a longshot campaign, but Sanders’ message catches on in key states and with Democratic voters whereever he goes

As poll after poll shows him inching toward Hillary Clinton among Democratic voters -- and overtaking her in New Hampshire and Iowa -- Bernie Sanders admits he's stunned. Nine months ago, the senator from Vermont insisted he'd get in the presidential race only if he determined the country was ready for a grass roots revolution. But the massive, enthusiastic turnouts at his campaign rallies these days have exceeded even his expectations and forced him to hire more staff.

His message is resonating, Sanders told Des Moines Register writers and editors last week, because he's telling truths that people are hungry to hear from a leader: That there's something "fundamentally wrong" when the world's richest country has the highest rate of child poverty among Western industrialized nations, while our top 1 percent gets the overwhelming share of income. That a "corrupt" campaign finance system means members of Congress are so focused on funding and winning the next election, they can't represent their constituents.

That climate change is real, war should be the last resort of a great nation, and otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants deserve legal status. That the war on drugs needs to be rethought, and preschool and public college tuition need to be free, because most intellectual development happens between birth and age 4, and college can move working class people into the middle class.

"I want to see people as excited about becoming child care workers as college professors," Sanders said.

He supports public campaign financing and says he'd only appoint Supreme Court justices who would vote to overturn rulings allowing unfettered outside spending on elections. He opposes fast-track trade agreements that he says sell American workers short and compromise labor, health and environmental standards. He favors a single-payer, Medicare-type health insurance program for every American because, despite gains from the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. remains the only major Western industrialized country that doesn't guarantee health care as a right.

"With his stances, Sanders is tapping into a frustration many Americans are feeling but don't know how to address, and he's connecting the dots."

With his stances, Sanders is tapping into a frustration many Americans are feeling but don't know how to address, and he's connecting the dots. That's putting the Democratic Party establishment in something of a pickle. They're casting about for a mainstream alternative in case Clinton's email problems blow up. Sanders suggests party leaders "don't like me very much." Or maybe they think he can't win. When I ask Democratic friends about him, many say they like him but couldn't see him being elected president.

He says the political pundits think that in order to win, a candidate must be "middle or the road and get a substantial percentage of their money from the party establishment." Sanders says he relies on small individual donations that have averaged $31.20 apiece. And he believes if Democrats are to win, "they must create enthusiasm and a very different type of campaign than we've seen in the past."

"My efforts for the Democrats are not going to be with the billionaire class, trust me," he said. His strategy is to appeal to underrepresented voters by talking about "the real issues impacting real people." Of course that was also a route taken by Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards and Howard Dean, but none got the nomination.

Whether Sanders has the wherewithal to not just win but bring about the sweeping structural changes he's calling for is an open question. It's not that he isn't sincerely committed to the principles he espouses or seriously outraged by the current state of affairs. But implementing his agenda would require some Supreme Court vacancies, undoing some international treaties and more. It would take more compromise-minded members of Congress than the current ones, whose GOP leadership, in Sanders' words, "never had any intention of negotiating" with President Obama. Sanders, who represents a state that he says has virtually no gun control, offers that as an issue he has compromised on, though some of us might prefer that he hadn't.

Last November's Republican landslide in Congress wasn't so much about Republicans winning as it was about Democrats losing, Sanders declares; more than 60 percent of people didn't vote. He says when he ran for re-election to the Senate from Vermont in 1983, voter turnout nearly doubled because he was able to get first-time and low-income voters engaged. He acknowledges that he has yet to draw a significant number of African-American supporters but says he isn't yet widely known, and that Clinton benefits from her husband's popularity with black voters. Sanders says his economic and criminal-justice priorities would benefit African-Americans, who disproportionately suffer in those areas.

If you focus on how much some of Sanders' intentions depart from even mainstream Democrats', it's a longshot campaign. Then again, consider what could happen if Clinton's numbers go down, the Democratic establishment can't succeed at throwing a fresh roadblock in Sanders' path, and the Republican establishment doesn't succeed at doing the same to Donald Trump. In a matchup between those two, I'd put my money on Sanders, who's not only speaking for real people, but actually making a lot of sense.