WASHINGTON — Almost four years ago, a surging Sen. Bernie Sanders took to the stage in Washington to frame his brand of democratic socialism as a deeply American movement as he emerged as a serious presidential candidate. On Tuesday, he’ll return to try to remind progressives why they fell in love with him in the first place.
Sanders (I-Vt.) will deliver a thesis statement for his candidacy at George Washington University, having built a movement that he’s now fighting to lead. His unabashedly progressive 2016 campaign reshaped the Democratic Party and fueled a surge in left-wing activism.
Democratic socialism has become the new hotness on the left, and a bogeyman of the right. But Sanders, the pied piper of the movement, is now facing pressure from current rivals who’ve impressed primary voters with their own bold ideas — and needs to show he can rekindle that old magic and expand his current base of support.
The campaign has billed the speech as a major address to define Sanders’ vision of democratic socialism and a prescription for America. It’s been in the works for more than a month, and Sanders' advisers say he’s been hard at work on final revisions in recent days as he traveled across Iowa.
It comes at a moment when Sanders has seen his post-announcement polling bump fade as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has risen in the crowded Democratic field. While Sanders was the big-ideas candidate of the 2016 primary, inspiring base voters and pushing Clinton to the left on everything from free college to a minimum wage increase, Warren has seized that role this time around with bold proposals to break up big tech, pay off student loan debt, tax the ultra-wealthy, and provide universal childcare, captivating liberal voters.
“Last time, everything Bernie said was new and different”
“Last time, everything Bernie said was new and different. People hadn’t heard about free college tuition, about Medicare for All,” said Tad Devine, a top 2016 Sanders adviser who isn’t involved in the current race. “Warren is moving into that space right now with a lot of very new, novel ideas.”
Back to democratic socialism
Sanders’ aides insist this won’t be a retread of his 2015 paean to democratic socialism, where he argued his political philosophy was deeply rooted in American liberalism while harkening back to the triumphs of Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson.
They promise he will break new ground, laying out how his vision for a more just America that provides not just social but economic freedom to all people and offering a framework for the campaign going forward. They say he’ll draw a sharp contrast with President Trump, who he’ll slam for backing “corporate socialism” in the form of tax breaks and "too big to fail" protections while opposing it for everyone else.
“There are a lot of new approaches he wants to offer the American people”
“The purpose of this speech is really to lay out philosophy. He’s got essentially 100 percent name I.D. People really know what he’s about,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir told VICE News. “There are a lot of new approaches he wants to offer the American people, particularly in the latter half of the speech, when he talks about how democratic socialism is about freedom and how we expand those basic freedoms for people.”
It’s unclear how much new ground Sanders will actually cover, however.
The few speech excerpts released by the campaign hew closely to his November 2015 address at Georgetown University.
Where he said then that “true freedom does not occur without economic security,” he plans to declare that “economic rights are human rights.” He argued then, and will argue Tuesday, that means access to quality health care and education, a decent job, affordable housing, a secure retirement and a clean environment. He attacked, and will attack, the hypocrisy of corporate titans deriding “socialist” programs then using massive government funding to stay afloat after their self-created economic disaster in 2008.
He even plans to quote the same line from FDR's 1944 State of the Union that he did last time: “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
The same guy as 2016
It may not matter, as few would remember the specifics of that speech. Part of Sanders’ core appeal with his supporters comes from his remarkable consistency over the decades on most issues. And even if Sanders literally redelivers his speech from four years ago, it comes in completely different circumstances.
“In 2016 it was a novelty that he was a democratic socialist, and he had to define that. Now, it’s ‘I’m the same guy, the guy you fell in love with in 2016, the guy who’ll defend socialism even when it was a pejorative,’” said Democratic strategist Brian Fallon, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
At this point in 2015, Sanders was the upstart candidate trailing Clinton by 50 points in most national polls of the thin Democratic field (he’d cut it to 20 points by the time of his November socialism speech). He was barely known to most voters, and the speech last time helped him shape up the core argument of his campaign heading into the stretch run of the primaries.
Now, Sanders is universally known by Democratic voters. He’s spent months in second place in the polls of the crowded primary field, trailing only former Vice President Joe Biden.
He’s a known commodity — and while some policy specifics like his push to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen civil war and his K-12 education plan are new, voters broadly think they know what he stands for, for better or for worse.
Warren, meanwhile, is a fresh face on the national scene, and has gained traction based on voters’ excitement over her novel plans to break up big tech companies, heavily tax the super-rich, and pay off student debt.
Recent polls show the bounce Sanders got when he entered the race in late February has largely dissipated — he’d jumped from the high teens to the mid-20s and is now back around where he started (Biden is similarly fading after his own announcement bump).
Warren still trails, but she's ticking up toward the double digits after a disastrous launch that had her in the low single figures for much of the spring. According to recent polls, the two are tied for support among “very liberal” voters. Quality early-state polling has been scarce, but similar trends appear in both Iowa and New Hampshire, with Warren steadily gaining while Sanders has struggled to build past his initial core support in the race.
A survey released over the weekend by well-respected Iowa pollster Ann Selzer found Sanders in a dead heat with Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for second place in the early-caucus state.
Some of that shift is to be expected. Sanders was little-known with room to grow four years ago, like Warren is now. And his core support has been consistently with him ever since his last race — he’s never dropped below the teens.
Another thing that’s changed: Donald Trump is president, and he's signaled he plans to run hard against socialism while conflating Sanders’ brand with totalitarian failed states like Venezuela. He’s hammered at that point ever since his State of the Union speech.
Republicans accusing Democrats of being socialist is nothing new — it’s happened from FDR through the Obama years. But Sanders’ embrace of the term could make it a harder charge to defend against.
Sanders allies argue his head-on pushback on the GOP’s misleading attacks could help put the issue to rest; other Democrats worry it just further inflames an issue that could alienate the swing voters needed to win in 2020, just as Fox News and the GOP look to make Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), another self-described democratic socialist, the face of the modern Democratic Party.
“This time around with AOC and everyone else, Republicans feel socialism is a very credible line of attack,” said Fallon, the former Clinton aide. “[Sanders] leaning into this again is a little bit more provocative, a little more red meat for those people in 2019.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets people during a campaign stop at the Capital City Pride Fest on June 08, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Most of the more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president are campaigning at various locations in Iowa this weekend. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)