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Why Bernie Should Run, Pt. 2

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, arrive to vote in Burlington - SOPHIE MACMILLAN
  • Sophie MacMillan
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, arrive to vote in Burlington

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has insisted for months that he hasn't decided whether to seek the presidency again in 2020.

As he dashed across more than a dozen states this fall — including the primary-election bellwethers of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — the senator said he first had to answer the threshold question of whether he could topple the incumbent president.

"If there's somebody else who [can] do a better job than me, I'll work my ass off to elect him or her," Sanders told New York magazine in a recent interview. But, he added, "If it turns out that I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump, then I will probably run."

Behind the scenes, top staffers have spent the past year building a campaign-in-waiting. "What I and others have been doing is making sure that the door is open if he decides to run," veteran Sanders aide Jeff Weaver told Seven Days. Weaver, who managed Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign and is widely expected to reprise the role in 2020, has remained on the payroll and is already interviewing potential staffers.

To some top advisers, the question isn't whether Sanders will run for the Democratic nomination. It's when he'll pull the trigger. "He's gotta get going soon," said Ben Tulchin, who has served as the senator's pollster since 2015. "Him announcing and getting out early sets the tone of the race and puts pressure on everybody else."

Added Weaver, "I do think that the campaign has to be up and running sometime in the first quarter of next year." Sanders, who was reelected this month to a third six-year Senate term, did not respond to an interview request.

As he edges toward a run, the senator's adversaries have floated the notion that he could exert more influence over the 2020 Democratic field by sitting out the race and playing kingmaker. "He could boost or kneecap whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted," the Atlantic's Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote this week, paraphrasing the don't-do-it camp. "They'd all be dancing to his music."

That, as Sanders might say, is absolutely absurd. The way to exert influence over a presidential primary is to join it, as Sanders himself proved in 2016.

I made much the same point in an October 2013 column not-so-subtly headlined "Why Bernie Should Run." At the time, Sanders was little known outside the MSNBC bubble — and the only mention of a presidential campaign was in an interview he gave Playboy magazine.

Sanders, I argued, had spent his life trying in vain to convince "the Beltway's horse-race-obsessed media machine" to pay attention to the issues that animate him, most importantly income inequality. He "would meet with far greater success if he had a bus full of campaign embeds tailing him from Iowa to New Hampshire," I wrote.

That dynamic has only been heightened in the Era of Trump, during which presidential drama has largely drowned out meaningful debate over public policy. For most Democrats, the only reliable way to break through has been to play on Trump's turf, with a well-timed Twitter zinger.

Sanders has proved an exception to that rule. Since 2016, he has beefed up his Senate office's digital media operations and produced enough content — including videos, podcasts and live-streamed town-hall meetings — to rival a small media company. True to form, he's used his elevated platform to push the message, not just the messenger.

"I think he does a better job than anyone else out there of making the campaign about the issues," said Michael Briggs, who served as Sanders' chief spokesperson from 2007 to 2017.

Briggs recalled one of Sanders' first arena-scale rallies in August 2015 in Portland, Ore. "I heard the crowd erupt in cheers when he said, 'We must restore Glass-Steagall,'" the ex-flack said, referring to the Depression-era law that separated commercial and investment banking. "I was like, 'How do these kids even know what Glass-Steagall is?'"

Sanders has already inspired at least five other senators weighing presidential runs to sign on to his Medicare-for-all legislation. Whether or not he enters the race, they and others will clamor to court his progressive base, just as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

Sanders is quite clearly an early front-runner. Other than former vice president Joe Biden, he's the only potential candidate who has run a national campaign. He won 23 primaries and caucuses in 2016 and racked up roughly 13 million votes. He has a massive list of small-dollar donors, a stable of trained staffers and a network of volunteers who are ready to feel a little more Bern.

"The level of enthusiasm from former supporters in states across the country is still very high," said Nick Carter, who served as Sanders' 2016 political outreach director.

That's especially true in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state where Sanders won his most important victory in 2016.

"The Bernie wing of the party is the majority wing, at least here in New Hampshire," said Burt Cohen, a former state Senate majority leader who endorsed Sanders last time around.

"There are hundreds of activists that are just as fervent for him today as they were on primary day of 2016," echoed New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley.

One big difference? Instead of competing in a head-to-head race against Clinton, as he did four years ago, Sanders could face up to three dozen Democrats in the primary. "If there are 30 other candidates, that's a huge advantage to Sen. Sanders because he has a base of support that will probably be larger than others,'" Buckley said.

According to Sanders' 2016 Iowa campaign coordinator, Pete D'Alessandro, there aren't enough experienced operatives to staff so many campaigns.

"One of the big advantages that the Clinton people had was that everyone on their team had pretty much done the jobs they were doing before, and pretty much everybody on our team was doing those jobs for the first time," he said. "So now that flips a little bit."

Not that the whole gang is poised to get back together. Several key 2016 players would likely sit out 2020. Briggs left the Senate office for health reasons in 2017. Veteran state director Phil Fiermonte retired later that year. Chief of staff Michaeleen Crowell joined a lobbying firm in October. And chief strategist Tad Devine has kept a low profile since he became entangled over the summer in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's prosecution of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.

Others are still nursing grudges against Weaver, who they say mismanaged the campaign and a postelection spin-off group, Our Revolution. "There's just a lot of people who don't want to work for Jeff anymore," said one former staffer who refused to speak on the record.

"It's easy to Monday morning quarterback a campaign," Weaver responded.

A number of veterans would be likely to return, including Devine's business partner, Mark Longabaugh, digital consultant Tim Tagaris, deputy communications director Arianna Jones and Iowa state director Robert Becker. Sanders' new deputy chief of staff, Ari Rabin-Havt, a former adviser to Harry Reid and Al Gore, is ascendant in Bernie Land.

"There's only one person in the campaign who's irreplaceable, and that's Bernie Sanders," said Briggs, who hopes his former boss will enter the race.

Perhaps Sanders' biggest vulnerabilities are demographic. "One hears quite often, 'Maybe he's too old,'" Cohen said of the 77-year-old. Sanders is also a white male who hails from one of the least diverse states in the country. Women and minorities have become dominant forces in Democratic primaries, and several nonwhite candidates are expected to run in 2020 — Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick among them.

Sanders hasn't always been agile on the topic of race, such as when he recently told the Daily Beast that "there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable" about voting for African American candidates in the 2018 midterms.

"I'm like, 'Ugh. We're repeating the same mistakes,'" the former staffer said of the remark, noting that Sanders' top advisers have typically been white men. "I think the biggest thing I'll be looking for is whether Bernie is including people of color and women in his senior staff — not just [wife] Jane Sanders."

According to Weaver, that "absolutely" would be the case.

Another concern is that future opponents may dig deeper into Sanders' past than Clinton did, though the proto-campaign is surely relieved that federal prosecutors recently dropped a long-running investigation into Jane Sanders' tenure at Burlington College.

If he runs, Sanders is unlikely to be the only progressive in the race, and he won't be the freshest face. Supporters are worried about competition from Harris, Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and superstar U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas). At least two members of Congress who endorsed Sanders in 2016, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), are also eyeing the race.

But the compressed primary calendar, which devastated Sanders in 2016, would likely help him now that he's better known than most of the field. Several states have moved up their primaries, including delegate-flush California, where many Democrats will be voting by mail before the Iowa caucuses.

"It's a huge impact on the race," Tulchin said, explaining that only a few candidates will have the money to compete in California's expensive media markets.

Reforms to the Democratic National Committee's nominating process would also help Sanders. Most notably, superdelegates — the party leaders who largely supported Clinton in 2016 — will only be allowed to vote at the Democratic National Convention if there's a deadlock.

For Tulchin, it all comes back to Sanders' threshold question: whether he's actually the best-positioned candidate to defeat Trump. The pollster is convinced that's the case.

"He has real appeal with millennials. He does well with independents. And he does relatively well, for a Democrat, with white working-class and rural voters," Tulchin said. "For any Democrat to win, you're going to need to do well with those groups of voters ... and cut into Trump's base. Bernie can do that."

Perhaps. Though as the 2016 election made clear, it's dangerous to assume anything about presidential politics anymore. The only certainty is that, for the next 23 months, the nation's ruling class will be hyper-focused on the election. And if Sanders wants to be part of the conversation, he'll have to be in the race.

So Bernie, I'll argue once again, should run.

Media Notes

After 20 years on the air, the cohosts of WVMT AM 620's "Charlie + Ernie in the Morning!" are planning to sign off for good on December 21.

"The time just feels right," Charlie Papillo explained. "I'm a young 63. I want to do other things." Among them: focus on his side catering business, Pizza Papillo.

"It's been a good ride," said Ernie Farrar, a 75-year-old radio veteran who joined WVMT in 1967 and has been hosting its morning shows for more than three decades. (A third host of the show, Lisa Nagle, left in March.)

The departures of Papillo and Farrar coincide with WVMT's sale by Sison Broadcasting to locally owned Vox AM/FM, but all parties maintain that the cohosts made the decision.

"I tried to talk them out of it," said Ken Barlow, a Vox partner. "We're not exactly sure who's going in there, but one thing we are sure is that we're going to keep it local."

Papillo said he won't miss waking up at the crack of dawn every day and constantly preparing for the next show, but he will miss the job.

"I've been able to live my dream for the last 20 years," he said.

John Walters will return next week.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Why Bernie Should Run, Pt. 2"

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