Bernie Sanders Has Something New to Talk About

The Iran crisis is giving him a chance to differentiate himself—just in time for the Iowa caucuses.

Stephen Maturen / Getty

Bernie Sanders has been making the same pitch for a long time.

During his first presidential bid, in 2016, the senator from Vermont’s trademark policy proposals were Medicare for All and free college. This time around, those two ideas are still positioned front and center in his presidential platform. Four years ago, Sanders was shouting himself hoarse about Wall Street and the 1 percent, and his 2020 bid features the same language: oligarchy, income inequality, billionaires. Even his 2020 logo—the white Bernie on a blue background with swooshes and a star dotting the i—is identical to the one he used in 2016.

To critics who have called him a broken record, Sanders has countered that of course he’s repeating himself: His message is the same because America’s problems are the same. But unlike in 2016, Sanders is no longer the only candidate running on ambitious, left-wing ideas. Six of the 14 remaining Democratic candidates support some version of Medicare for All, and four support a form of free college. As his ideas have permeated the rest of the field, Sanders’s own candidacy appears less radical—or at least less exceptional.

But with the Iran crisis, Sanders has found something new to talk about. Last Thursday, U.S. forces killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military general, raising the possibility of a military conflict and thrusting another aspect of Sanders’s platform into the spotlight: his staunch anti-war position. The stance could give him another way to differentiate himself from his 2020 rivals, just in time for the Iowa caucuses a few weeks away.

After news reports began to trickle in about the death of Soleimani, Democrats mostly responded in a similar fashion: They contended that while Soleimani was a bad guy, killing him risked all-out war with Iran. They rebuked Donald Trump, but they also condemned Soleimani. “Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said in a statement. “But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran.” Former Vice President Joe Biden started his response by denouncing Soleimani’s “crimes against American troops and thousands of innocents” before warning about the “hugely escalatory move.”

Sanders, though, offered no such qualification. “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars,” the senator said in a statement. “Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path for another one.” (Two other 2020 candidates, Andrew Yang and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, offered similarly unequivocal responses.)

The difference might seem like mere semantics, but it helps underscore how different Sanders’s approach to foreign policy is from that of his competitors. “Putting it in context of how awful Soleimani is is taking [the focus] off of where the focus should be, which is two decades of horrendous U.S. policy,” says Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink, a women-led anti-war organization. “This is a time that Bernie is going to be able to distinguish himself as somebody who understands the horrific consequences of U.S. policy.”

From his willingness to speak critically of Israel to his forceful rebuke of a “coup” in Bolivia, Sanders has challenged the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in a way that most other candidates, including other progressives, haven’t. The Sanders campaign views workers’ rights as a “global struggle,” and the senator has aligned himself with leftist leaders around the world. Unlike Warren, the other progressive heavyweight in the race, Sanders voted against the implementation of sanctions on Iran in 2017. Warren “has voted against U.S. intervention in many cases, but she hasn’t made that a key component of her political trajectory overall the way Bernie Sanders has,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.

Sanders has a long history of anti-war activism. He applied to be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and in 1991 he voted against the Gulf War. He also voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, and has recently been an ardent critic of America’s involvement in the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen. In one of his first tweets after the killing of Soleimani last week, Sanders took a virtual victory lap: “I was right about Vietnam. I was right about Iraq. I will do everything in my power to prevent a war with Iran. I apologize to no one.”

Sanders is already putting more of an emphasis on his foreign-policy platform. Last Saturday, the senator kicked off a campaign event in Dubuque, Iowa, by calling for immediate action from Congress to prevent a war with Iran. He’s especially contrasted himself with Biden, his biggest 2020 rival, who, notably, did vote to support the Iraq War. The former vice president, Sanders argued in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday, “helped lead the effort for the war in Iraq, the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in the modern history of this country.” Voters should expect Sanders to stay on this point, his campaign has said: “Bernie Sanders has a proven record of fighting for the right thing at the right time—on the first instance, not on the second, third, fourth, or fifth try, as the case might be with Joe Biden,” Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told Vanity Fair on Tuesday. “So yes, you’re going to hear a lot more about his Iraq vote from us.”

Conveniently for Sanders, such an emphasis could find an audience in Iowa specifically, the first state to vote in the 2020 primary election, and where recent polling shows him with a narrow lead over his rivals. “Iowa has a history of being dovish,” Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist based in the state, told me. Voters there have elected anti-interventionist lawmakers to Congress in recent decades, including former Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and former Republican Representative Jim Leach. And in 2008, Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton in the state by running, at least in part, on his vote against the Iraq War. “It’s been a recurring theme over the years [that] Iowans pay close attention to foreign policy,” Link said. “From that perspective, it’s smart for Sanders.”

Sanders’s anti-interventionism could also help him beyond Iowa: Polls show that the majority of Americans, including most Republicans, do not support another war in the Middle East. He could potentially pique the interest of a new swath of supporters, including younger Americans who have spent their formative years observing military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even Trump voters who supported the now-president for his own promise to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East. “[Trump] doesn’t have a rudder on these things; it’s whatever he’s feeling at the moment,” Link said. But Bernie “is crystal clear. If we were judging this contest on who has the most clarity on who they are and what their message is, Bernie wins.”

Yet it’s not totally crystal clear that Sanders will gain an advantage: A poll from FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos, released in September before the Soleimani strike, showed that very few Democrats are prioritizing foreign policy in choosing a candidate, and The Washington Post reported that Iowans haven’t been asking many questions about Iran at campaign events. It’s also possible that, if there is no further escalation after Iran retaliated with military strikes of its own on Tuesday, Sanders’s anti-interventionist stance may lose its salience. And Sanders isn’t the only candidate who sees the Iran conflict as a potential campaign boost, though in a different way. Biden has spent the last week promoting his own foreign-policy experience as vice president. “Biden’s been in the Situation Room before. Buttigieg has been shot at before,” Paul Rieckhoff, the host of the Angry Americans podcast and an Iraq War veteran, told me, noting the former mayor’s military experience. “Those are the kinds of things that are going to resonate with the American people.”

But with just three weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses and no obvious front-runner in the state, a new way for Sanders to distinguish himself from his rivals could be exactly what he needs to pull ahead. After all, Americans already know Sanders as the guy who advocates for universal health care and shouts about the billionaires. They may not have heard as much about Sanders the anti-war activist.