Sen. Bernie Sanders at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was in New Hampshire on Saturday, denouncing U.S. economic inequality in a speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester. He had to feel pleased with the first comment from the audience. “If you could give this address in every home in America,” a middle-aged man declared, “I think you'd be elected president.”
Indeed, that's why Sanders was there — New Hampshire hosts the nation's first presidential primary, and Vermont's junior senator acknowledges that he's considering a race for the White House in 2016.
The 200-plus, mostly older listeners who filled the auditorium at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm were predisposed to Sanders' message, despite its unrelievedly bleak tone. They voiced their enthusiasm by giving him a standing ovation before he spoke.
Sanders, 72, did not rely on notes as he segued smoothly from topic to topic, at times jabbing his index finger, waving his arms and shouting in cadenced tempos. He let loose lines such as: “a $7.25 minimum wage is obscene” and “it's morally grotesque to talk about cutting Social Security” and “health care in America is to a very significant degree about making money for private health-care companies.”
The audience was on its feet again at the conclusion of the socialist politician's 70-minute talk. His themes would have been familiar to many Vermonters, but clearly struck some Granite State residents as novel in their radicalism.
Caroline French, a Dover, N.H., resident, expressed delight with Sanders' remarks. “What he's saying isn't being addressed by any other candidate,” French observed following the speech. “He has a solid platform to run on. Inequality is getting worse and worse and could be the demise of this country.”
Kevin J. Kelley
Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a crowd of more than 200 supporters at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
It remains to be seen whether the mainstream media will treat Sanders as respectfully, or ridicule his call for “a political revolution in this country.” Unless the information gatekeepers take him seriously, Sanders has no hope of making his message heard in millions of American homes.
Big Media was nowhere in evidence at St. Anselm on Saturday. Only three cameras recorded the event — one from C-Span, which records most national political events, and a couple from local TV outlets.
That might seem a paltry showing for a speech by a politically unique figure who's been elected to Congress 10 times, but the New Hampshire primary is still two years away, and few Americans are watching the preliminary jockeying. Still, the media would have swarmed a New Hampshire speech by Hillary Clinton, who's widely regarded as a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination.
It's not clear that Sanders would challenge Clinton in the marathon set of Democratic primaries that begin in New Hampshire. As he ponders whether to run at all, Sanders is considering the pros and cons of taking part in Democratic contests throughout the winter and spring of 2016. He could also choose to maintain his independent status and run in the three-month race that culminates in the November general election.
He certainly wasn't sucking up to the Dems on Saturday.
“Why are the Democrats so passive?” an audience member asked Sanders. He didn't answer directly, instead sounding a lament for the party's drift away from New Deal and Fair Deal principles.
Harry Truman, who served as president from 1945 to 1953, “was considered then to be a conservative Democrat,” Sanders said. “But very few Democrats will talk in his language today,” he noted, suggesting that Truman would be in the progressive minority of today's Democratic Party. “It had been a center-left party focused on the working class, and it's now a centrist party that receives millions of dollars from corporations,” Sanders said.
During his talk — which also touched on campaign finance reform, the United States' world's-highest rate of imprisonment, pay equity for women and the consequences of climate change — Sanders made no mention of a possible race for the White House. The 10 or so audience members who asked him questions also did not seek comment on whether he'll undertake a presidential campaign.
A possible strategy did emerge, however, in the emphasis he placed on the need to “build a strong grassroots movement that elects good people and holds them accountable.” Sanders would aim, it is clear, to mobilize the 45 percent of Americans who don't vote in presidential elections.
An impossible task?
Probably, but Sanders began his speech by recounting the series of quixotic campaigns he ran as a Liberty Union candidate and then as an independent in the 1970s, never receiving more than 6 percent of the vote. That changed in 1981 when he was elected mayor of Burlington. Sanders attributed his upset victory to building “a coalition — a word that's not much in vogue today.” It consisted, he said, of low-income Burlingtonians, women, trade unionists and environmental activists.
Perhaps surprisingly, Sanders identified his proudest accomplishment during the early years of his tenure in city hall as the doubling of Queen City-voter turnout from 1981 to 1983.
“It's a lesson I've never forgotten,” he said. “If you listen to what people say and what they need and if you fight for them, they will participate in the political process.”