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Bernie Sanders’ rise means more talk about electability than revolution

Emma Kinery
Bloomberg

Senator Bernie Sanders, who has campaigned for years as the candidate for “radical change” who will lead a revolution, now is talking more about how he can beat President Donald Trump and has something to offer every voter.

Sanders is enjoying a rise in polling and fund-raising in Iowa and New Hampshire. With the Democratic Party focused on defeating Trump, he’s trying to temper his reputation as someone who is outside the mainstream.

In a CNN national poll released Wednesday, Sanders jumped seven percentage points and is now a bit ahead of the more moderate Joe Biden, but within the margin of error.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as he kicks off his second presidential campaign, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in the Brooklyn .

At the Iowa Black and Brown Forum in Des Moines on Monday, Sanders was asked a question that began with “your agenda is radical.”

Sanders interjected: “No, it’s not radical,” and after conceding that his proposals are a dramatic departure from Trump’s, he turned to the audience. “Guaranteeing health care to all people through a Medicare for All program, is that radical? Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, is that radical?” he asked, setting off a call-and-response.

“Making public colleges and universities tuition-free, canceling all student debt through a tax on Wall Street speculation, radical?” Sanders asked and someone shouted, “Hell no!” He continued, listing fighting climate change, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, abortion rights and gun reform, to louder “nos” and shaking heads. He then turned back to the moderators and quipped, “I beg your pardon, we have a radical agenda.”

His speeches over the past two weeks still feature the same call to action that his progressive supporters like, but he’s spending more time explaining to voters how policies like Medicare for All would look in their daily lives, as well as how he could beat the Republican incumbent.

At the forum on Monday, Sanders answered a moderator’s initial question of whether voters should choose him if, as Sanders had put it in a previous interview, his campaign strategy may be “a gamble” in what many see as a crucial election.

Sanders said there is no guaranteed-to-win strategy, but to defeat Trump, the Democratic nominee must energize voters and bring in new ones.

“I happen to believe that Trump will be a very formidable opponent for a large number of reasons, he lies all of the time, etc., etc., but to defeat Trump we are going to need a very large voter turnout,” Sanders said. “You have got to think: How do you create that large voter turnout? Which campaign can do it? I’m not saying that we are the only campaign, but I think we are well-suited because of our message and our grassroots activism.”

At a rally last weekend in Davenport, Iowa, the senator from Vermont stressed that the idea of universal heath care is not new, listing presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama as examples of leaders who have suggested it.

“It’s certainly not something that I came up with,” he said. “After over a hundred plus years of talking, now is the time for action.”

Sanders is currently the front-runner in New Hampshire at 19.8%, closely followed by Biden with 18.5% in the Real Clear Politics average. In the first caucus state of Iowa, Biden leads with 21% followed by Sanders with 17.3%. The close margins and the fact that a majority of voters say they could still change their mind shows the angst among early-voting Democrats, said strategist Mary Anne Marsh, adding that Sanders is trying to assuage them.

“This is probably for most people, most people participating in the Democratic caucus in Iowa and primary in New Hampshire, the most significant choice that they’ve made in their lifetime in terms of an early vote, and they know it, because the country follows their lead,” Marsh said. “Bernie’s trying to make sure he’s not too liberal, too progressive, too much of a socialist for people to support.”

A common criticism of Sanders’s candidacy is that there is a ceiling on his support. He has die-hard followers, but some wonder if his Democratic socialist message can unite a party focused on electability.

On Tuesday, the Democrats’ last presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, who fought a long battle with Sanders for the 2016 nomination that left bad blood on both sides, was quoted weighing in on his chances.

“Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it,” she says in an upcoming Hulu documentary according to quotes published by The Hollywood Reporter.

To counter the perception that his proposal is too far left and not rooted in reality, Sanders has been walking voters through the nuts and bolts of his health care plan and explained to potentially skeptical voters how he says it will help them.

“I want to tell you for a few moments, very briefly, what Medicare for All means because the health care industry will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to misinform you,” Sanders said in Davenport last weekend. “So as somebody who wrote the damn bill, let me tell you what’s in the damn bill.”

Going around the room Sanders asked Iowans how much they currently pay for health insurance premiums and voters in the crowd shouted back figures from $600 a month to $1,300. Sanders then compared those annual costs to the amount Medicare for All would cost the average family in tax increases.

Sanders has yet to offer specifics for how his plan would be paid for, but over the past two months he has begun to offer some details including a 4% tax on individual income of more than $29,000. His proposal calls for a four-year transition period with Medicare benefits expanding in the first year to include dental and vision, hearing aids, home health care and mental health.

He’s Unwavering

Marsh said she thinks Sanders’s strategy has everything to do with convincing voters he can win in November.

“He saw Warren was hurt by her Medicare for All position and I think he felt compelled to walk people through it and say it’s not as extreme as some people think it is,” Marsh said.

Yet making his policy pitches more palatable doesn’t mean he’s any less fervent, and that’s what draws voters. Mary Hogg, 62, of Cedar Rapids, plans to caucus for Sanders if her first choice, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, doesn’t garner enough support.

“Bernie – there’s no one like him. He’s unwavering,” Hogg said at his rally in Iowa City last Sunday. “His passion does not stop, which I love about Bernie and he will not quit until he wins the fight. In that sense he’s a fighter, and I love that about Bernie. I loved the rally, it was great.”

(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)