Nearly four years to the day after launching his first Democratic presidential bid in nearby Burlington, Bernie Sanders returned for the first rally of his 2020 campaign in his adopted home state. And Sanders used it to highlight his career as a mayor, congressman and now independent senator from Vermont.
He also used it to highlight his record of opposing the war in Iraq, called on the United States to end its involvement in the war in Yemen, and urged his country to stay out of a military conflict in Iran.
“I make no apology for leading the effort against the war in Iraq,” Sanders said on the steps of the state capitol in Montpelier.
The self-described democratic socialist led the bipartisan effort to get the United States out of the Yemeni Civil War, a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. President Trump vetoed the resolution last month.
“If we do not end that war soon, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children will die this year in Yemen and millions will face starvation in the years to come,” Sanders said. “I make no apologies to anyone for trying to end that horrible war.”
He continued: “Right now, this minute, I am doing everything that I can ... to prevent Donald Trump and [national security adviser] John Bolton from taking us into a war in Iran — a war which would be in my view much more destructive, if you can believe it, than the war in Iraq and could lead us, literally, to perpetual warfare in that region, that not only this generation of members of the armed forces would be there, but their kids and their [grand]kids. So I make no apologies for trying to do everything that I can to make sure this country does not get into another war in the Middle East.”
The rally was a homecoming of sorts for Sanders. Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen, who introduced Sanders at his 2016 kickoff, introduced him again Saturday in Montpelier. Cohen is set to host ice-cream socials for Sanders in the neighboring key state of New Hampshire on Memorial Day.
“Before Bernie, Jerry and I used to be the most famous guys from Vermont,” Cohen told the crowd. “We are happy and proud to pass that distinction on to Bernie. I mean, ice cream is good, but a president of the United States who truly believes in justice in all its flavors? That’s euphoric!”
Plenty has changed for Sanders since his first presidential campaign launch on the shores of Lake Champlain. Four years ago Sanders was virtually unknown on the national political stage. It wasn’t even clear on that day how big a crowd he would draw for his first rally; an hour before he was due to speak, organizers were understandably nervous when it seemed there were more dogs than people milling around the lakefront park. But by the time Sanders took the stage, an overflow crowd of more than 7,000 people had gathered to hear his call for a “political revolution.”
Now Sanders routinely commands crowds three times that size at his rallies. (About 10,000 came out for the event in Montpelier.) His brand of progressive politics has become much more mainstream in the Democratic Party: Medicare for All, free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage and combating climate change are common Democratic policy prescriptions.
And Sanders’s rise in popularity led to a lucrative book deal that made him a millionaire, a label he has begrudgingly accepted. (“I wrote a best-selling book,” he told the New York Times in April. “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”)
Still, for Sanders, much remains the same. In 2016 he faced an uphill battle against the establishment frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. Sanders is again facing an uphill battle against the establishment frontrunner, this time in former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden, like Clinton, voted in favor of the war in Iraq. In 2016 Sanders repeatedly raised that vote to contrast himself with Clinton; expect he will do the same with Biden this time around.
The most recent Quinnipiac University national poll showed Biden with a 19-point lead over Sanders (35 percent to 16 percent) among Democratic voters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the progressive firebrand and Sanders’s ideological equal in the race, sits just behind him (13 percent) in third place.
When Sanders ran in 2016, some wondered whether he was too old to be president. In 2019, the same question remains, with Sanders now 77.
And Sanders, who largely failed to attract African-American voters in 2016, continues to struggle with that bloc.
On Friday the Sanders campaign released a video ad showcasing his experience as mayor of Burlington (he won election in 1981, defeating a five-term establishment incumbent by just 10 votes). And it includes remarks he made as mayor in the mid-1980s that could’ve been part of his stump speeches in 2015 or 2019.
“I don’t think this revolution is going to happen overnight,” Sanders says in the ad. “But I do think it’s important that in Burlington, Vermont, and in cities and towns all over this country, workers and people who are interested in true democracy begin talking about these ideas. And maybe in Burlington, Vermont, we will strike a little bit of a spark that might spread around the country.”
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