After the shellacking Democrats took in the 2010 and 2014 elections, one phrase is on the lips of many Iowa Caucus activists: “party building.” How would their nominee strengthen the party infrastructure? How committed would they be to help down-ballot Democrats? What type of assistance would they provide to state and local parties beyond campaigning for themselves?
The concern isn’t simply a self-interested cry from local activists. Many of President Obama’s top priorities have been stymied by Republican control of Congress. On the state level, Republican governors and legislatures have blocked the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, among other federal initiatives. And in many states, Republicans won so many local elections in Obama’s midterms that their voters have seen a net rightward shift in policies during a Democratic presidency.
Some of the 2016 candidates have made efforts to address Democrats’ concerns. Martin O’Malley sent staffers from his PAC to help down-ballot Iowa Democratic candidates in 2014. Hillary Clinton rallied the party faithful at the Hall of Fame Dinner, saying, “Let’s build up our party in every corner of this state and country, elect Democrats at every level, take back school boards and statehouses all the way to the White House.” Both Clinton and O’Malley have taken aim at Governor Terry Branstad’s controversial vetoes of school funding and mental health. And Clinton’s campaign even singled out Joni Ernst in a statement yesterday, attacking Ernst’s bill to defund Planned Parenthood.
Right now, however, the candidate seeing the biggest crowds at his events is Bernie Sanders. His message of fixing economic inequality has generated considerable enthusiasm for his campaign and buoyed his standing in the polls, even bringing him within 10 points of Clinton in a few New Hampshire polls.
But after over three decades in elected office, Sanders has only identified as a Democrat for two months now. He still officially calls himself an Independent in the Senate while running for the Democratic nomination. So as Sanders continues to gain momentum in a party he’s avoided classifying himself with, it’s a legitimate and important question Democrats should ask: if Bernie Sanders were the nominee, would he help rebuild the party?
A History of Independence, and Some Disdain for Democrats
Much of Sanders’ electoral history in liberal Vermont is now well-known. First elected in a squeaker of a race as the mayor of Burlington in 1981, Sanders has since spent 16 years in the U.S. House and is serving his second term in the Senate. Throughout that time he’s self-identified as a “Democratic Socialist” and independent. While he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate now, there was a time in the 1980’s and early 1990’s where he openly expressed considerable disdain for the party.
“Is the Democratic Party a vehicle for social change? It is not,” Sanders told a Vermont crowd in 1986, according to press reports from the time in the Rutland Herald. That paper further reported that during Sanders first run for Congress in 1990 he didn’t just simply want to run as an independent, but he stated at a Socialist Scholars Conference he “planned to establish a statewide third party in Vermont.”
“We have to ask ourselves… why should we work within the Democratic Party if we don’t agree with anything the Democratic Party says?” Sanders questioned in 1990.
The year before that, he penned a column for the Burlington Free Press where he called for a separate party. “Like millions of other Americans, NOW understands that the Democratic and Republican parties are intellectually and morally bankrupt, and that we need a new political movement in this country to represent the needs of the vast majority of our citizens,” Sanders wrote in 1989.
And again in 1990, he argued that a third party gaining a decent percentage in the national vote would be better than the Democrats winning the White House. “If we could run a good candidate, a (person like Jesse) Jackson or whoever, and get 10 percent of the vote running on a strong democratic socialist point of view, we could have more of an impact in this country than actually winning the presidency under a Democratic candidate,” he said.
Obviously, Sanders has cooled off on that rhetoric in the years since. He now works closely with the Democrats in the Senate, won the Vermont Democrats’ nomination for Senate when he ran in 2006 (and then promptly declined it so as to run as an independent), and now hopes to be the party’s national standard-bearer in the presidential campaign. But he has also notably still refused to officially identify as a Democrat in the Senate over all these years.
That reluctance, coupled with his past statements, could make many a party activist very nervous. Would a Sanders nominee address the mundane, though incredibly important party building tasks if he hates the party structure so? Or would he focus solely on his economic populism message? Of course, many of those Sanders quotes are from quite a while ago. So Starting Line called up a number of top party activists in Vermont to get a sense of what his relationship has been with the Vermont Democratic Party in recent years.
Sanders Relationship With Vermont Democrats
“Vermonters are very independent-minded, so I think there’s been an appeal to having Senator Sanders be an independent, even though he definitely on most issues is in alignment with Democratic policies and values,” says Michael McCarthy, the chair of the Franklin County Democrats and a former legislator. That appeal led to the very unusual step of the party endorsing Sanders for Senate, even though he wanted to run as an independent.
“In order for the national party to support Senator Sanders, we as a state party had to say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s our guy,’ and endorse him,” McCarthy explains of the special process they set up. “And in fact we had to figure out a whole endorsement program just to figure out how to do that. It’s been unusual, but it’s been a great collaboration and Democrats in Vermont love Senator Sanders.”
And party activists say Sanders does come around to party events and helps out during the campaigns.
“We have big events, he will show up, the whole delegation is there, and he’ll be up on the podium,” says Billie Gosh, a DNC delegate from Vermont.
“Not only does he caucus with the Democrats, but he has worked very well with party activists over the years,” agrees Jack McCullough, the chair of the Washington County Democrats, noting Sanders does help organize with statewide and local Democratic candidates.
“He campaigned for me in my reelection to the House in the Fall,” McCarthy adds. “He was doing Get-Out-The-Vote [for Democrats] in St. Albans.”
“He has campaigned for others, with others,” says State Representative Mary Sullivan of Burlington. “He’s certainly been helpful.”
So what’s changed over the years? How did Sanders go from blasting the Democratic Party and calling for a national third party to campaigning for Democrats in Vermont?
“I think his change there is much more a reflection of his attitude toward the Republican Party than it is about the Democratic Party,” suggests McCarthy. “Bernie looks at the reality of how can I best accomplish my goals. I think if a third party vehicle was available for him to carry his message forward, he would do that. I don’t think he is really loyal to the Democratic Party, but because there’s so much overlap in values, he’s just been more and more inclined to caucus with fellow Senators who are Democrats and work on electoral down-ballot races with Democrats here in Vermont. But that’s a function of the Republican Party has gotten so extreme and has become the antitheses in their support for corporate personhood that is anathema to Bernie. So he’s aligned himself with the Democratic Party, even though I wouldn’t really say he’s a Democrat.”
“I don’t think his attitude has changed over time because he caucuses with the Democrats, but he does not call himself a Democrat,” says Gosh “He’s being pragmatic.”
If some of his underlying feelings about the system haven’t changed, but his tactics have, would he work hard on party building measures?
“That’s a really good question, and I can’t say that I know whether Bernie could rally the machinery of the party in the way a Democrat who came up through the party would,” McCarthy says. “But I think that one thing Bernie could definitely do is get more people involved that maybe have been alienated from the party, or felt like the party wasn’t theirs.”
“No, he has not,” Gosh replies simply about whether Sanders has helped with building up party infrastructure, and doubted he would at the national level.
“He’ll be focusing on his message, there’s no doubt about that,” says Sullivan of what Sanders’ priority would be, yet notes that could still have big benefits for Democrats. “But it’s certainly resonating with many Democrats [and Republicans too] … There are a lot of people out there who are angry, and I think a lot of people have misdirected anger. I think Bernie is letting people know there’s a lot to be angry about, but focus it in a way that will make a change that will improve your life.”
“Don’t underestimate this guy,” Sullivan cautions. “Don’t underestimate his ability to reach out and touch people’s hearts and souls.”
The Sanders Campaign Approach
It’s been fascinating watching Sanders campaign throughout Iowa and the reactions he gets, and many of it is telling as to how he would approach party building were he the nominee. At his event last week in West Des Moines, Sanders drew an impressive crowd of over 1,000, many of whom were unfamiliar faces to this Democrat. The enthusiasm and excitement for his message is real. And yet he sometimes misses chances to connect on local issues. A voter provided an easy lay-up to hit Branstad’s vetoes when he asked Sanders last week about Iowa’s declining support for mental health facilities. Sanders immediately took the conversation straight back to national-level economic inequality, bypassing the Iowa connection.
And that singular focus is what worries some Democrats even more than Sanders’ past party alignments. His economic populism message is a powerful one that resonates, but it is not the only message that resonates. The Democratic Party is a coalition party, combining the strength of labor unions, African Americans, Hispanic voters, teachers, pro-choice women, the LGBT community, young people and government workers, to name a few. All of those groups care about economic inequality, but it may not be their top priority. And a large part of party building is doing good outreach efforts to each and boosting their turnout.
So far, Sanders has shown an unwillingness to deviate much from his main talking points, often spending 90% of his speeches on economic inequality. Still, that has produced results. His turnouts at events have been amazing. Just last night his campaign organized house parties across the nation, claiming over 100,000 sign-ups. Sanders is clearly bringing new people into the process. That’s a very, very good thing for the Democratic Party.
Everyone agrees that Sanders is a very different type of candidate with a different approach for winning the nomination and the White House. Different can be good or bad, but the big question is whether it’s the best approach for Democrats in 2016. For a party still reeling from electoral wipe-outs in 2010 and 2014, Democrats need a nominee who can advance the entire ticket, not just one issue. How Sanders accomplishes that is a question he’ll need to address in order to win the nomination of a party he just officially joined.
by Pat Rynard