“I think the current occupant of the White House is an embarrassment to our country,” Senator Sanders said in an interview with Vermont Public Radio, where he first announced his bid. “I think he is a pathological liar. … I also think he is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, somebody who is gaining cheap political points by trying to pick on minorities, often undocumented immigrants.”
Senator Sanders, who has held dozens of political rallies across the country since the 2016 election, enters the race with the biggest social media following – and biggest mailing list – of any candidate for the Democratic nomination. His decision came after a number of groups that spun out from his 2016 run, such as Our Revolution and People for Bernie, held house parties to mobilise his old supporters, and to find new ones.
After coming a few hundred delegates short of victory in 2016, Sanders begins a 2020 race with some advantages. He is one of the best-known and most admired figures in Democratic politics, though he is not a member of the party. He built campaign operations in every primary and caucus state.
But unlike Hillary Clinton, who recovered from her 2008 primary defeat to become the party’s front-runner in 2016, Senator Sanders has not built on his support from the prior campaign. In early polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, where he won 50 per cent and 60 per cent of the vote, support for the senator from Vermont has ranged from the low teens to 30 per cent.
Two Democrats who endorsed him in 2016, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, and author Marianne Williamson, have themselves entered the race; a third, Senator Jeff Merkley is considering a bid. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has long been a friend of Sanders and shared an overlapping network of supporters, announced her campaign on New Year’s Eve. And some strategists and endorsers who helped Sanders in 2016 have already moved to other campaigns.
Senator Sanders also faces a crowded and liberal-leaning field of candidates that bears little resemblance to the lengthy two-way race with Clinton. Most of the Democrats currently seeking the nomination back Senator Sanders’s signature legislation to turn Medicare into a universal healthcare plan, and to raise the federal minimum wage to $US15.
“There are some really good people who have announced, and they’re friends of mine,” Senator Sanders told The Washington Post last month. “My views are maybe a little bit different.”
Both Senator Sanders and Mr Trump in 2016 argued that Americans were suffering from a rigged economy and that chunks of the country had been forgotten as Wall Street and other elites prospered. Senator Sanders bridled at such comparisons in 2016, and on Tuesday upbraided the president in stark terms.
“You know as well as I do that we are living in a pivotal and dangerous moment in American history,” he wrote. “We are running against a president who is a pathological liar, a fraud, a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe and someone who is undermining American democracy as he leads us in an authoritarian direction. I’m running for president because, now more than ever, we need leadership that brings us together – not divides us up.”
Senator Sanders’s successes in 2016 capped an unlikely political ascent. He ran for multiple offices in Vermont before a stunning 1981 upset that made him mayor of Burlington, the state’s largest city.
In office, Senator Sanders became the best-known democratic socialist in American politics, bringing new development to the city while building ties to international left-wing movements. In 1990, he won the state’s sole seat in the House of Representatives, as an independent, after Democrats did not field a candidate of their own – an understanding that would continue through seven more House campaigns and three for the Senate.
Despite that, Senator Sanders was not viewed as a first-tier challenger to Mrs Clinton when his 2016 bid began. Liberal groups had launched efforts to draft Warren, although she chose not to run. When he announced his campaign, Senator Sanders parried away questions about poll numbers that showed Mrs Clinton 40 or 50 points ahead, saying he was “in this race to win,” and battling the impression of a fringe candidacy.
To Mrs Clinton’s surprise, Senator Sanders’s campaign caught fire. By the summer of 2015, he was regularly speaking to crowds numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. He stuck to the issues that animated him: universal health care, free college tuition and higher taxes on the rich. After several speeches were disrupted by protesters, he began speaking more about criminal justice reform and an end to the war on drugs.
“We can live in a country where every person has health care as a right, not a privilege,” Senator Sanders said on the trail, words he repeated in Tuesday’s presidential announcement.
As Senator Sanders’s last campaign surged, neither candidate was comfortable making personal attacks. Senator Sanders refused to talk about the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server while at the State Department, focusing instead on whether Mrs Clinton was too close to Wall Street; Mrs Clinton accused him of making unrealistic promises, warning that his agenda would lose in a general election.
Nonetheless, he won more than 13 million votes and consistently trounced Mrs Clinton among voters under 30. While the senator later endorsed Mrs Clinton and campaigned for her, some of his supporters walked out of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and Republicans used social media to urge Senator Sanders’s voters to cast protest votes or embrace Mr Trump as the real change candidate.
“His attacks caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign,” Mrs Clinton wrote in her 2017 campaign memoir.
Mrs Clinton’s surprise defeat left Democrats leaderless. Senator Sanders, who had never actually joined the party, began to take a bigger role in shaping it. He joined the Senate Democratic leadership for the first time, and held dozens of rallies around the country – some alongside Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez – to build opposition to the Republican agenda.
Sanders also began recrafting and reintroducing ambitious bills to enact his agenda, starting with “Medicare-for-all” legislation that was co-sponsored, for the first time, by more than a dozen colleagues. Through much of 2018, he worked with Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, and Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, to pass a war powers resolution to end America’s involvement in the Saudi bombing of Yemen.
If successful, Sanders, 77, would also be the oldest nominee ever put forward by a major political party.
– with John Wagner