Bernie Sanders Is Once Again Asking His Party to Stop Screwing Up the Midterms

By: Kara Voght, Rolling Stone

ON THURSDAY, BERNIE Sanders will hit the campaign trail to make his closing midterm pitch. He’ll go to states like Wisconsin, Nevada, and Pennsylvania — “to places where we think we could have the most impact,” he says. He’ll go to congressional districts where his party has given up, like South Texas. He’ll campaign on behalf of Senate candidates who aren’t planning to appear alongside him.

He’s going because, in the eyes of the 81-year-old progressive senator, his party is blowing its chance at midterms success. Democrats are letting Republicans win the messaging war on the economy — even though, as far as Sanders can tell, the GOP’s only plan is to cut popular social programs. “The Democrats have not been strong enough in making that point — and we’ve got to make it,” he says.

So Sanders is taking it upon himself as he embarks on an eight-state tour on Thursday. He’ll make 17 stops in total, primarily in liberal strongholds, such as Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas, where his most loyal supporters live. He’ll also go where he outperformed President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential primary — particularly among working class voters in cities such as Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. Sanders will hold an event on behalf of Michelle Vallejo, a progressive House candidate locked in a dead heat in a southern Texas district. National Democrats have abandoned Vallejo’s campaign in its final weeks as their financial resources dwindled, but Sanders, who won in the district in the 2020 primary, thinks that’s a mistake: “Why would you turn your back on a solidly working-class group of people, the Latino community in South Texas?”

“The theme that I am going to be bringing forth and making as strongly as I can, is that if you have concerns about creating an economy that works for all people, and not just billionaires, you cannot vote for Republicans,” Sanders tells me from his home in Burlington, Vermont, on Tuesday afternoon. “That it is insane.”

Sanders has long spoken of elections and their consequences in dire terms. During his two campaigns for the presidency, Sanders crisscrossed the country warning that corporate power and authoritarianism would erode human rights. Two weeks from the 2022 midterm elections, many of his fears are nearly realized. Roe v. Wade has been overturned. The Democratic Party’s control of the White House and Congress has yielded some progress, but not early enough, to reverse the coming climate catastrophe. Former President Donald Trump and his allies are waging a war “on the foundations of democracy,” Sanders notes. Under the banner of such bleakness, “a lot of people are discouraged,” he says. “That discouragement may result in them not coming out to vote.”

But “even above all those enormously important issues,” Sanders adds, “is the fact that we have more income and wealth inequality today in America than we’ve ever had.” Corporate greed is a root cause of inflation, he explains, “making huge profits and ripping off the American people.” The policy solutions Sanders suggests are wonky, but the overall point is this: “Republicans are going to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to pay for huge tax breaks to billionaires and the wealthiest people in this country. I don’t think that’s what the American people want.”

In the months leading up to November’s midterms, Democrats had eschewed Sanders’ economic prescriptions in favor of a message that emphasizes GOP attacks on abortion in the wake of Roe’s reversal. The final stretch has found the party scrambling to find a message that acknowledges voters’ financial hardships and proves Democrats, not Republicans, hold the solutions. But from Sanders’ vantage point, it’s still not enough. “Unfortunately, the Democrats sometimes do not do what they should and stand up to the drug companies or the insurance companies or the fossil-fuel industry,” Sanders says. “I want to do what I can to get them to do that.”

Who does Sanders want to be to his party in the year 2022? “My role will be simply to do everything I can to make sure that the Democratic Party listens to the vast majority of the people, who happen to be working-class people,” Sanders replies, “not just to establishment consultants and wealthy campaign donors.” This tour casts Sanders in a familiar role: as a critical but hopeful interlocutor who inspires Democratic voters, even when he’s not fully on board with the party — and the party isn’t fully on board with him. Sanders hopes that stumping this cycle could draw out the disillusioned corners of the electorate — especially younger voters, skeptical of the Democratic Party but not of the curmudgeonly octogenarian Democratic socialist.

He undertook a similar endeavor on Biden’s behalf during the 2020 general election with a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a virtual event with Teen Vogue, and a get-out-the-vote video with pop star Halsey. He did it even as Biden distanced himself from Sanders in the campaign’s last days, reminding viewers during an NBC town hall in October of that year that he’s “the guy who ran against the socialist.”

Some candidates whose Sanders’ tour is meant to boost have taken a similar tack. “Senator Sanders and John will not be appearing together in Pennsylvania,” says Joe Cavallo, the communications director for Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman — even though Fetterman had supported Sanders during the senator’s 2016 presidential run. A spokesperson for Mandela Barnes, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, declined to comment when asked if he would appear with Sanders during his four-stop swing through the state. Sanders had proudly endorsed him and allowed Barnes to borrow the Vermont senator’s name for fundraising emails, The New York Times reported.

Some of that is due to a technicality: Much of Sanders’ tour is being sponsored by the independent expenditure wings of progressive groups NextGen and MoveOn, and campaign finance law prohibits candidates from showing up at those events. “There are some stops that we are making that we are paying for from our own camp, where we can invite candidates or other campaigns, or whatever it may be,” Sanders says. “I don’t have all of the details yet.”

Sanders disagrees that any candidate hesitancy has anything to do with the potency of his movement. “I think that’s corporate media hype,” he says. He points to the “huge increase” in soon-to-be progressive House members expected to join the so-called Squad when Congress reconvenes in January. “If you look at underlined, strong — not somebody who vaguely calls himself or herself a ‘progressive’ — progressives, there will be more in the United States Congress than ever before in modern American history.” Of the planks of Biden’s economic agenda that were defeated in Congress last year, Sanders remains confident they reflect the will of the American public. “Everything that I have fought for, and virtually every provision in the Build Back Better plan that was defeated by Manchin and Sinema, every one of those positions is enormously popular,” he says.

But have those defeats given Sanders any pause about the potency of his politics or policy prescriptions — or pushed him to reconsider any of his priors on what brings voters into the Democratic fold? “That’s a great question,” Sanders replies. “Why don’t we talk about that after the next election?”