In some ways, Bernie Sanders spent this past weekend in his element. Sanders has long out-performed Democrats in conservative-voting parts of his home state, far out-fundraised the rest of the Democratic field in Obama-to-Trump-voting counties, and his town halls on Fox News in Trump-voting parts of the country during the Democratic primary were a political phenomenon.
The Vermont senator drew on this history to tour through the Midwest this past weekend, trying to sell Republican-voting Americans on what he framed as the successor to the New Deal and what he repeatedly called “the most consequential piece of legislation for working people in the modern history of this country.”
With his $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill facing extremely tight voting margins in Congress, and the currently ascendant Democratic Party staring down the barrel of a midterm slaughter next year, Sanders talked directly to audiences in West Lafayette, Indiana, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, explaining the stakes of the coming legislative battle over the bill for their lives, and hearing from locals about their own stories and concerns.
“I love doing this stuff,” he told Iowans. “We talk about the real issues facing working families, and you can’t do that in a ten-second soundbite.”
In an echo of the campaign days, Sanders recruited five locals at each stop to share their own experiences and give their thoughts about what the bill’s passage would mean for them, ranging from small business owners and students, to city councillors and working parents struggling to pay the bills (“It’s a very radical concept,” Sanders told the crowd. “It’s called democracy”). One speaker talked about her son’s suicide, after he was inundated with health maladies and thrown off his job and his health insurance. Another, an unemployed father of two, recounted what the expanded unemployment insurance he had claimed for the first time in his life during the pandemic meant for his family.
“I’ve worked with TBI [traumatic brain injury], I’ve worked with this, I’ve worked with that, but working with a real living wage I have not done,” he told his fellow Indianans.
These attempts to give working people a voice in the political process has a long lineage in Sanders’s career: as mayor of Burlington, Sanders had tapped local residents to volunteer for city projects, extended his office hours to hear ideas directly from people, and became known for regularly talking with and interviewing townspeople on his public-access TV show. But they were also a conscious attempt to shift the focus of coverage from the beltway to-and-fro and put the needs of working people front and center.
“Sen. Sanders believes one of the most important roles of the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee is to get out and educate as many working Americans as possible about what is in the budget and how it will help them,” said a source familiar with the matter. “Part of that process is getting the media out of Washington to see the people whose lives will be changed by this legislation.”
Politically, this was a new context for Sanders as well. Needing all fifty Democratic senators on board in order to pass his bill, Sanders notably muted his pox-on-both-houses-style criticisms of the Democratic establishment that had made him such a distinctive candidate in the past. Having worked closely with the Democratic leadership to write the ambitious bill, Sanders is as of now operating as a pragmatic team player — albeit with still-copious denunciations of billionaires and “big-money special interests.” A crack that billionaires were so at a loss for what to do with all the money they’d made over the pandemic that they resorted to taking “space trips” got laughs at both events.
As would be expected of a Budget Committee chair, Sanders took a more partisan tone than audiences might be familiar with. He defended Joe Biden from the occasional audience criticism and largely dodged the concerns expressed about right-wing holdouts Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, while hitting Republicans for voting lockstep just a few years ago to cut taxes for the rich and throw people off their health insurance, but now refusing to give a single vote to this bill. He tersely praised the deeply flawed bipartisan package being pushed by Biden, while noting he wasn’t involved in it.
Opening each event with a plea for people to get vaccinated followed by a lengthy meditation on how climate change is wreaking havoc around the world, Sanders delivered something between his campaign stump speech and a diagnosis of the “difficult times” the country is living through. After outlining the progress already made since Biden took office, he went one by one down the list of the reconciliation bill’s major provisions and what they meant for those attending, starting with “end[ing] the obscenity” of billionaires and corporations paying nothing in taxes and making the $300-a-month child tax credit checks permanent, to putting in place universal childcare and pre-K, free community college, and making massive investments in combating climate change.
He stressed repeatedly the bill wasn’t “everything I want,” and that bolder measures like Medicare for All and wholesale student debt forgiveness are where the country needs to go, but that what measures were in there were significant and “a good start.” He charged that the bill’s provision allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, for instance, “will be the first time in American history that Congress would have stood up to the pharmaceutical industry.”
“It’s Called Democracy”
Not surprisingly, it was a largely liberal, pro-Democratic crowd at both events, though some attendees with Trump paraphernalia could be seen leaving the grounds at West Lafayette after Sanders finished outlining the bill’s provisions. That particular venue was especially progressive, owing to the large number of student attendees from nearby Purdue University (“We’re going to see daddy!” one remarked excitedly before the event). Attendees whom Jacobin spoke to after the town halls were over were uniformly liberal, pro-Sanders voters.
Yet several attendees also told Jacobin that they hadn’t known what was actually in the bill before coming to the event. Chris, forty, and his wife, who asked not to be named, both campus workers at Purdue, were impressed Sanders had come to Lafayette in the first place and given ordinary people a chance to speak their minds. They appreciated that he had stressed the bill’s enormous price tag would be paid for by taxing the wealthy (“I can’t imagine what three trillion of anything even looks like,” said Chris) and believed that learning the bill’s details that night would make it easier to have conversations about it with their neighbors. They liked the focus on policy specifics, a break from the scandal-focused nature of local politics, they said.
Ben Watkins of Cedar Rapids, twenty-nine, likewise enjoyed hearing from locals, and said he hadn’t known the “ins and outs” of the reconciliation bill before the event, and was particularly interested in its educational and environmental provisions. “It’s hard to find the time,” he said about properly researching a bill this size. One questioner from the audience, Xavier, a student, likewise admitted that he hadn’t known much about the bill coming into the town hall, and that it “warms my heart” to have learned about what it includes, particularly with many of his peers underwater with student debt.
Some of the more challenging questions of the weekend came from union members, with two members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers asking Sanders what the bill would do for them, and whether it included money to help other workers transition to a post–fossil fuel world (Sanders said the latter was critical, though it’s not clear a specific provision exists for it in the bill, and he pointed to the bill’s investment in solar for the former). He said he would “fight like hell” and “do everything I can” to keep Democratic moderates from shaving provisions off the bill (“I’ve already compromised,” he said, pointing to the $6 trillion price tag he put forward initially), and waved off concerns about Manchin and Sinema.
“I believe that at the end of the day, after a lot of negotiations, and pain… what we are going to do is pass the most comprehensive bill for working families that this country has seen in a long way with the fifty votes, plus the vice president,” he said.
Bridging the Gap
Rallying a sympathetic constituency behind the bill may in the end prove as important as winning over conservative voters.
With Trump no longer on the ballot, Democrats are suffering from a possibly fatal enthusiasm gap in coming elections. This has been most dramatic in California, where Democratic governor Gavin Newsom has a very real chance of being recalled in September despite solid approval ratings in a heavily Democratic state — all because Democratic voters are less motivated to turn out for the election than Republicans.
Just yesterday, the Democratic National Committee finished up its own cross-country tour touting their agenda, stopping off in largely Democratic strongholds in blue and purple states. Former Iowa state representative Jeff Kurtz, attending the Cedar Rapids town hall, said it was unusual to see a national politician come to the town.
Between meeting the local responsibilities of a senator, trying to stop a coming far-right electoral tidal wave, pushing the reconciliation bill along, and doing what he says he wishes he could do in “all fifty states” — talk to the public directly about it — Sanders has his work cut out for him.
Yet in spite of the country’s, and the world’s, many frightening crises, and despite his own loss of the presidential nomination last year, he remains optimistic, insisting that a “strong progressive movement” has already won victories and raised consciousness in the United States. Told by one audience member that his friends are disillusioned since his loss and no longer see the point of being politically involved, Sanders was resolute.
“I beg of those students… if there ever was a time not to sit it out, not to allow yourself to become disillusioned, this is the time,” Sanders said. “I say to all of those who supported me, thank you, but the struggle continues.”