There's Something About Bernie

The Vermont senator’s revolutionary zeal has met its moment.

Bernie Sanders addresses the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame dinner (Jim Young / Reuters)

There’s no way this man could be president, right? Just look at him: rumpled and scowling, bald pate topped by an entropic nimbus of white hair. Just listen to him: ranting, in his gravelly Brooklyn accent, about socialism. Socialism!

And yet here we are: In the biggest surprise of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, this thoroughly implausible man, Bernie Sanders, is a sensation.

He is drawing enormous crowds—11,000 in Phoenix, 8,000 in Dallas, 2,500 in Council Bluffs, Iowa—the largest turnout of any candidate from any party in the first-to-vote primary state. He has raised $15 million in mostly small donations, to Hillary Clinton’s $45 million—and unlike her, he did it without holding a single fundraiser. Shocking the political establishment, it is Sanders—not Martin O’Malley, the fresh-faced former two-term governor of Maryland; not Joe Biden, the sitting vice president—to whom discontented Democratic voters looking for an alternative to Clinton have turned.

Frankly, not even Bernie Sanders thought this—Berniemania—would happen. “No, no, we didn’t,” he tells me, as I sit facing him in his Washington office, which is decorated with bottles of maple syrup. A plaque features Eugene Debs, five-time Socialist Party candidate for president. The notorious Sanders hair, to be honest, has been greatly exaggerated; it lies placidly, almost respectably across his ruddy scalp. And truthfully, the socialism rap has been blown out of proportion as well: Sanders accepts “democratic socialist” as an accurate descriptor of his philosophy, but he never sought it as an identity.

“The campaign is moving so fast the infrastructure can’t keep up,” Sanders confesses. “It sometimes reminds me of a military campaign, where the front line of the army is moving faster than the supply chain.” Since Berniemania began this summer, he and a small band of aides have been scrambling to turn it to their advantage.

You don’t often hear politicians admit that they didn’t expect to catch on. But Sanders and his team have a bracing habit of saying things politicians and their aides are not supposed to say—a minor violation of norms that reminds you how accustomed we are to being lied to in politics.

Another basic tenet of campaign spin is that consultants must never admit their candidate isn’t totally perfect, but Sanders’s people apparently missed that lesson as well.

“I give him advice—not always advice that he follows,” says Tad Devine, the veteran Democratic consultant, a former adviser to Al Gore and John Kerry, who is Sanders’s top strategist. “He is not interested in the niceties of appearance and hairdo.”

Sanders’s communications director, Michael Briggs, adds: “He goes on for an hour-long, eat-your-spinach kind of speeches. And people are clapping for it!”

In that spirit of radical honesty, I am not going to tell you now that Sanders “just might give Hillary Clinton the shock of her life,” as is customary in these kinds of stories. Sanders is drawing a steady quarter-to-a-third of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, pulling within 10 points of Clinton in some New Hampshire polls. Some Clinton aides have begun floating the notion that she could lose one or both of those early-voting states, though this seems like an attempt to lower expectations. But Clinton is still the favorite of Democratic voters nationally by nearly 30 points. She has the money, she has the endorsements from the party elite, and she has the massive teams of staff and advisers.

But Bernie Sanders has one thing Hillary Clinton doesn’t: an ideology.

When Sanders set out to run, he tells me, his main fear was that doing so might prove harmful to his ideas. “If I failed, if it was a bad campaign, if we didn’t get many votes—fine, I can live with that,” he says. Sanders is leaning back on a couch, his leg propped up on a table, squinting through his unfashionable glasses into the middle distance.

“But the ideas that I am talking about—if the campaign did badly, then it would give the establishment the opportunity to say, See, Sanders ran on a platform calling for single-payer national health-care system, and he did really poorly,” he continues. He ran on a platform calling for the creation of millions of jobs through rebuilding the infrastructure—nobody really supported him. He talked about income and wealth inequality; it didn’t go anyplace. Those aren’t really good ideas!

They are like babies to him, fragile and cherished, these ideas. Sanders almost cringes at the thought that they could suffer. “What worried me was not what happens to me personally if I failed—what worries me is what happens to these ideas,” he says. “Well. When you have 10,000 people coming out to a meeting in support of these ideas, then people say, Hmm, maybe these ideas have some resonance.

For the length of the Obama presidency, liberals have fallen, mostly quietly, into line, content to watch from the sidelines as Republicans ate each other alive. Their unity was a marked contrast to Democrats’ traditional factiousness—as Will Rogers famously joked, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” In 2012, when I would ask the attendees at Obama rallies what they hoped to accomplish by reelecting him, many said it would be enough for him simply to stop the GOP.

Now comes the ultimate test of Democratic unity: a dynastic, centrist, seemingly unstoppable frontrunner—someone who, despite decades in public life, had to convene a committee of 200 advisers to figure out where she stood on economic issues. Finally, the left has been pushed to the breaking point. It has turned, in protest, to the most un-Clinton-like candidate there is—the nutty Vermont uncle of Democratic politics.

On a blazing-hot afternoon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Sanders is holding a press conference with local veterans. Outside, on the steps of the imposing Beaux Arts veterans memorial building, a bearded man in a straw hat hands out Veterans for Peace fliers; a woman in a flowered skirt brandishes a handmade poster that says, “GREEK PEOPLE - YES. EURO BANKERS - NO.”

Sanders shuffles in and sits at a folding table, glaring out at the throng of cameras as he is introduced, knees swaying under the table. Last year, Sanders was the architect of a bipartisan agreement to reform the Veterans Administration in the wake of scandal—his profile in the Senate, surprisingly, is less that of a bomb-throwing ideologue and more of a pragmatist content to advance the cause incrementally. “He has a willingness to accomplish things at the margins, through the committee process, not blow things up,” an aide to a Democratic senator tells me.

When it is his turn to speak, Sanders ambles to the lectern and hunches over it, Grant Wood’s stained-glass tributes to American servicemen rising behind him. “I voted against the war in Iraq—that’s my view,” he says. “But all of us understand that we will do everything we can to provide for those people who serve in wars.” The light-blue sign on the lectern says, in small print below his name: “PAID FOR BY BERNIE 2016 (NOT THE BILLIONAIRES).”

Sanders takes some questions from the assembled press. They are mostly softballs, testament to the role in which he has been cast: The media isn’t interested in catching him out so much as propping him up as Clinton’s foil. What does he think of Clinton’s economic policies? Sanders points to his support for breaking up the banks and reinstating the Glass-Steagall banking regulations. “I’m not sure Hillary Clinton is in that place,” he says with grim satisfaction. Another gimme: How much money has Sanders taken from Goldman Sachs? “I don’t want their money!” he says. If he’s elected, Sanders says he will not nominate any candidate to the Supreme Court who has not promised to vote to overturn 2010’s Citizens United campaign-finance decision.

At the press conference, I meet Les Bailey, a retired ironworker who lives in Marion, Iowa. He has a salt-and-pepper goatee and wears his hair in a mullet under a black Vietnam-veteran cap. In 2008, he wore himself out walking miles and miles knocking on doors for Barack Obama. Now, he thinks Sanders can win Iowa in a similar upset. “This is not the country I fought for, where billionaires buy elections and anyone can get a gun,” he says.

Every Sanders crowd is full of die-hards like Bailey, passionately committed to their unlikely hero. Every Clinton crowd, on the other hand, is full of lukewarm rank-and-file Democrats who will not hesitate to tell you they have some qualms about supporting her. As Sanders’s press conference ends, a line is forming around the block for the party Clinton is about to throw in the basement of the same building. “I’m with Hillary because I don’t have any choice,” a retired schoolteacher named Elwood Garlock tells me as he waits to pass through the metal detector. “I think she’ll be good. But it would be nice if she’d take up some of Bernie’s ideas.”

In the press riser at the Hillary event, I find Frank Luntz, the sneaker-wearing Republican message man. In town to moderate a Republican forum, he has stopped by Sanders’s and Clinton’s events out of curiosity. He is astonished by what he heard from Sanders: “He really hates rich people!” Luntz exclaims. He predicts that Sanders will do very well in Iowa and New Hampshire: “He says what he really thinks,” Luntz tells me. “She doesn’t.”

The Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame dinner, held in the big ballroom at the downtown convention center, is swarming with Sanders fans. Outside, rival groups of O’Malley and Clinton fans wave signs and chant for their candidates; Sanders met privately with volunteers at his hotel, but told them not to bother waving signs in the brutal heat.

It is not too hard to tell the Sanders supporters from the Clinton people as they stream into the venue. The Clinton people tend to be dressed for a night out, in neat suits and dresses. The Sanders people are casually dressed, many in pale-blue T-shirts that say “JOIN THE POLITICAL REVOLUTION TODAY” on the back.

“I’m a farmer and a commodity broker—I should not be a Bernie Sanders supporter,” says Keith Kuper, a 61-year-old in jeans and an untucked plaid shirt. “If that’s true, how come all my friends are for Bernie?”

“So many of us have been thinking these things for so long,” adds his wife, Marian Kuper, who is wearing a button featuring Rosie the Riveter saying, “Bern Baby Bern!” “It’s refreshing to hear someone state the case in a real way!” The Kupers say they will happily vote for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee next November. “But we’ll fight like hell for Bernie until that happens,” she says.

As the speeches begin, the establishment-looking Clinton people seem to have all the tables closest to the stage. The Sanders people are out in Siberia, concentrated on the stage-left side of the giant room. One particularly boisterous table near where I’m sitting is clearly a Bernie stronghold, particularly two older women whom I mentally dub “the grannies.”

The grannies are respectfully quiet when Clinton speaks, a well-rehearsed address peppered with topical jokes (trickle-down economics is a 1980s mistake “right up there with New Coke”; Donald Trump is “finally, a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine!”). They cheer O’Malley’s populist rallying cry, as he calls Wall Street executives crooks and rails against free-trade agreements. In between speakers, they chant, “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!”

When Sanders’s turn comes, the tables near the front applaud politely; the tables in the back get up and cheer. The grannies are banging forks on their wineglasses like percussionists. Their hero trudges to the stage; his bald head gleams as he looks down at his notes. “Let me begin by suggesting something to you that I think very few candidates ever say,” he says, pausing dramatically. “No president, not the best, can bring about the changes we need in this country unless there is a political revolution.”

The grannies bang their fists on the table as Sanders speaks. They chant. They get up and sway back and forth. “That’s right! That’s right!” they yell. “Woo, woo, woo!” They drum on the table with both hands.

There are no laugh lines in Sanders’s speech. (As one longtime associate memorably described his delivery to Politico: “Straight ahead, growl. Straight ahead, growl.”) “Citizens United is moving this country toward an oligarchic society!” he says. The grannies have gotten out of their chairs and are walking around banging on their glasses.

“We need jobs and education, not jails and incarceration!” he says. The grannies are literally screaming: Ber-nie, Ber-nie, Ber-nie! A good half of the ballroom—the respectable half—is silent, unmoved, but the Sanders partisans have enough passion to fill a ballroom three times this size.

After Sanders finishes, I approach the grannies. “I’m not thrilled about Hillary,” says Janette Ryan-Busch, a 60-year-old organic farmer. “She’s too closely tied to corporate America.” The other, Sue Ellen CrossLea, a retired government worker and former Peace Corps volunteer, was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in her 20s. “Hillary is for the big boys, I’m afraid,” she says. “If she wins the nomination, I’ll work my butt off for her, but I’m not going to work for her to be the nominee—I just don’t agree with her.”

It is easy enough to see where Berniemania is coming from. Antiestablishment passion, left and right, is in the air. People are angry all over, fed up with a system that isn’t working, an elite that doesn’t listen, a politics perpetually conducted within a narrow, unrepresentative band of acceptable opinion. “I think there is a lot more anger and frustration on the part of the American people toward corporate America, toward the political establishment, toward the media establishment, than I think inside-the-beltway pundits perceive,” Sanders tells me. If he does nothing else in this campaign, he will have succeeded in driving home that point.

Sanders has been compared to Trump in the way he appeals to his party’s irascible fringe; he’s been compared to Ron Paul, the libertarian former congressman and three-time presidential candidate, who drew big crowds of young, digitally savvy activists in 2008 and 2012. Like Paul’s was, Sanders’s campaign is a temporary vehicle for those still naïve enough to see American politics as a vehicle for transformation rather than a hopelessly corrupt compromise. Yet he is also the product of a specifically liberal moment, when rising inequality has powered new skepticism about the adequacy of American-style market capitalism.

Unlike the Republicans, whom Trump is driving to distraction, Democrats are mostly sanguine about Sanders. “Bernie is not saying anything that’s going to hurt the Democratic Party in the future,” says Paul Begala, the former Bill Clinton strategist, who supports Hillary Clinton. “He’s registering new voters and energizing young people. It’s nothing but good.”

Even Republicans seem to see Sanders as a harmless curiosity. “I like Bernie,” Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator and GOP presidential candidate, tells me. “But he’s a socialist! If he had his way, we’d have one tank, one machine gun, and 90 percent tax rates!”

As Sanders has gained steam as a candidate, the press has done its best to put him through the conventional wringer. It has dug around in his past—finding that the son widely thought to be from his first marriage was actually born out of wedlock to another woman. It has pointed out the deviations from liberal orthodoxy in his record, like his longtime support of gun rights. And it has noted his greatest weakness, a lack of appeal among the party’s minority base; the day after his speech in Iowa, Sanders is interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters at a liberal convention in Phoenix, and criticized when he responds dismissively. When I interviewed him, Sanders repeatedly turned questions about race back to economic prescriptions, which many social-justice activists see as missing the point about systemic racism.

At this point in the article, Sanders, who detests horserace journalism and the politics of personality, will have been driven to distraction by how little has been said about the policies he wants to pursue—his beloved ideas. “On the floor of the Senate this week, we had a $600 billion defense bill,” he tells me. “What percentage of Americans do you think know that? Very few, because it’s not written about by the corporate media!” (Sanders’s tendency to berate his interviewers is one of the things that Briggs, his spokesman, wishes he could change about him: “He’s down on the press more than I would like.”)

“We have some very specific proposals,” he says. “We want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. I believe we need a massive federal jobs program to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure—trillion-dollar legislation, over a 5-year period, which would create 13 million jobs.” Sanders points to his longtime opposition to trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is currently under consideration. His opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. His support for single-payer health care, tuition-free public college, and worker-owned companies.

“Those are my views,” he says, a sarcastic edge creeping into his voice. “I suspect you will find them different from Secretary Clinton’s.”