The Fighting Soul: On the Road with Bernie Sanders, by Ari Rabin-Havt
The defining moment of The Fighting Soul, Ari Rabin-Havt’s telling of the 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, comes but four pages into the preface,.with Sanders in an ambulance, having just suffered what will be determined to have been a heart attack. As the then deputy campaign manager is thinking, “There is no way our campaign survives this,”the candidate is asking the EMTs in the ambulance about their job — “Did they have health insurance? How did they view health care in this country?” Never off message!
The book quickly takes us back five years to the start of the first Sanders campaign when “most people in the political establishment and the media believed he would garner support equivalent to Dennis Kucinich’s in 2004–which is to say, very little.” At that point the author was in the employ of Sirius XM broadcasting company, where he had been warned against personally endorsing Sanders. His 2016 election night “job was to cover the night’s proceedings” presumed to “ultimately end in Hillary Clinton’s election as the 45th president of the United States.”
While noting that “Hillary had attacked Bernie’s policies in 2016 as a naive wish-list,” he perhaps goes easier on the former Secretary of State than someone directly involved in the 2016 campaign might have. He doesn’t, for instance, get into her 2017 campaign memoir, What Happened, where she favorably cites an internet meme that sums up the Sanders campaign program — Medicare for All, $15 minimum wage, tuition-free community college, reduced military spending, etc. — as tantamount to saying,“I think America should get a pony.” And, at the same time, she accuses Sanders of partial responsibility for Trump’s victory by having resorted to “innuendo and impugning my character.” And why does she think he did that? Because actually “we agreed on so much.”
Rabin-Havt does set the record straight, however, on Sanders’s subsequent participation in the ungrateful nominee’s campaign: “No surrogate, apart from her vice-presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, did more events for her from Labor Day to Election Day.” In fact, during “the last week of the campaign, he held more public events, in more states, for Clinton’s campaign than she held herself.”
The 2020 Sanders campaign did, of course, ultimately go forward, its flame symbolically re-lit by the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now the most politically significant supporter of the prior campaign. And this time around, “every one of his significant initiatives had the support of other candidates in the race,” and Sanders had become a household name. Rabin-Havt recounts a DC run-in with a group of high school students swarming their car before the “light changed and we pulled away, the kids still screaming. Bernie turned to me and said, ‘I’m like Mick Jagger,’ as he laughed.” Wasn’t always that way, though, and Rabin-Havt thinks, “On some level he still couldn’t believe how far he had come since that first mayor’s race in Burlington in 1980. He had spent the first part of his political ‘career’ as the perennial candidate who had no chance of winning. As a backbencher in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, he was a gadfly who could be easily ignored.” The first foreshadowing of broader future impact would appear in the eight-and-half hour filibuster “on income and wealth inequality, oligarchy, and the power of the wealthy over the political process” that he delivered in response to the 2010 extension of Bush Administration tax cuts.
Given that Sanders has not particularly emphasized foreign policy either in his campaigns or in his prior career, Rabin-Havt may surprise some with his assessment that “given the power of the president in foreign policy, the quickest and most dramatic transformation” of a Sanders Administration “would have been in the United States’ self-professed role in the world.” But he reminds us that one of Sanders’s early House votes was against the 1991 Gulf War, a vote he feared might cost him his seat. At that point he said, “Clearly the United States and Allies will win this war, but the death and destruction caused will not, in my opinion, soon be forgotten by the Third World in general, and the poor people of the Middle East in particular.”
Rabin-Havt contrasts this with an exchange he once had with Senator Ed Markey — for whom he had previously interned — when Markey argued that a yes vote on the second, 2003 Iraq War was necessary to ensure that “Democrats not look weak on national security.” Markey was no outlier on this: three subsequent Democratic presidential nominees — Kerry, Clinton and Biden — voted with him. And while some might rather not think about it, despite his pre-Senate opposition to the Iraq War, when President Barack Obama took office he and his administration also fit comfortably enough within the bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Rabin-Havt notes that 2004 anti-Iraq War presidential candidate Howard Dean was “the subject of an attack ad morphing Dean’s face into Osama bin-Laden’s. It was produced with the help of Robert Gibbs, who would go on to be Obama’s press secretary.”
Today, Joe Biden is frequently cited as the most pro-labor president in American history, and given how low the bar has been set in that category, the assessment seems reasonable — in part for fact that after securing the nomination Biden was prepared to nominate Sanders as Secretary of Labor. The Democrats’ surprise wins in both Georgia Senate races and the perceived need for Sanders to remain in the Senate as part of an unexpected working majority would ultimately preclude the scenario from playing out, but it’s interesting to imagine a Sanders Labor Department. Where the American labor movement will often consider itself fortunate if a presidential candidate speaks the occasional nice word about it, Sanders was on a whole different level. The book recounts his entrance to the high-dollar Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame dinner during the run-up to that states’s nominating caucuses, as he led his supporters “on a blocks-long procession through the streets of Cedar Rapids into the convention center chanting, not for Bernie, but for $15 per hour and a union.” Not only would Sanders have been the nation’s most pro-labor president, he would have been its most pro-labor Secretary of Labor as well!
Unfortunately, the love was not universally reciprocated during the course of the campaign. As the early Nevada caucuses neared, the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union mailed all their members a warning that the Sanders Medicare for All plan would take away the medical coverage guaranteed in their union contract local. The local union’s president had previously told Rabin-Haft, “We were on the picket line for six years, four months, and ten days to protect our health care, and you aren’t going to take it away,” then turning and leaving before he could respond. She was referring to the union’s strike at Frontier Casino, one of the victories that in the author’s opinion had “turned Las Vegas into a city where a maid with a high school education could earn a decent living,” a decent living that notably included the union health plan he calls “one of the best in the country.”
To cut to the immediate chase, Sanders not surprisingly never went off message, never saying an unkind word about a union that he genuinely admired, while continually driving home the point that his bill would “guarantee that coverage is as comprehensive or more so than the health care benefits union workers currently receive” and that “union clinics … will remain open to serve their members.” The result was that enroute to carrying the day statewide, he won five of the seven caucuses held at Strip casinos where union members worked and caucused, and tied a sixth. Nonetheless, the understandable media coverage surrounding all this could not help but muddy the waters on the issue nationwide.
Why did this happen? Although he says the local never tried to engage in public debate on the matter, Rabin-Haft thinks the answer is clear: “The union’s problem with Medicare for All was that by eliminating the link between health care and work, Bernie’s plan would end the preferential treatment for their workers.” Certainly the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union’s researchers are too good for the leaders of their Culinary Workers local not to know that the Sanders campaign’s response was accurate. One can, however, perhaps understand their reluctance to take anyone’s word on the matter, given the precedent of the unfulfilled guarantee that the Affordable Health Care Act would allow people to keep the health insurance they previously had, if they so chose.
The campaign would come apart disturbingly quickly, quite simply because the Democratic Party “would organize against Bernie Sanders in a way they had not against any other candidate–Democratic or Republican. Bernie’s premonition that the establishment would never let us win was coming to pass.” This took the form of the withdrawal from the race and endorsement of Joe Biden by both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar in the two days before Super Tuesday, combined with the endorsements of already departed candidates Beto O’Rourke and Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, the other candidates with bases seemingly closer to that of Sanders — Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer and, most significantly, Elizabeth Warren — did not choose to close ranks behind him, with Warren continuing on into Super Tuesday, despite having finished no higher than third in any previous primary.
And the future? Speculation abounds as to whether Joe Biden will seek a second term — and whether he should seek a second term. And, although he has declared his support for Biden if he does run, we hear that a third Sanders run is not ruled out should Biden not opt to repeat. While his age would certainly be a major attack point for opponents and the media, serious consideration of the political lay of the land suggests not quickly bowing to the inevitable establishment rejection of the idea.
First there is the enthusiasm gap. The only Democratic candidate of the last two presidential cycles able to match the enthusiasm of Donald Trump’s supporters was Sanders, who in 2020 once drew crowds of 11,000 in Denver, 10,000 in Richmond, CA, and 17,000 in Tacoma — in one 24 hour period! As the book states, “while the presidential forums were often the largest crowds many other candidates would see on the campaign trail, they were among the tiniest for us.” Sanders has achieved that status not by cultivating any of the usual star trappings, but by speaking to the facts of the nation and the interests of its people. Now, with the Democrats rather pessimistically pondering their upcoming Biden mid-term elections, few are willing to come to grips with the fact that a major part of their problem is that the ideas currently on offer from its office holders and seekers still largely resemble those of Hillary Clinton more than those of Sanders.
And then there is the question of alternatives. The absence of any other presidential candidate willing to break in Sanders’s direction when the choice narrowed to him or Biden demonstrated that there was no one else in that field prepared to run on the slate of issues his campaigns have pushed into the national consciousness. The fact is that the person to whom the leadership baton might most logically be passed has an age issue of her own — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will only reach the requisite presidential age of thirty-five less than a month before the 2024 election — and seems unlikely to be entering the fray should Biden not.
While his book is certainly not a tell-all, Rabin-Havt does not hesitate to call his candidate’s performance at a She the People forum “mediocre” because “he fell back on some of his standard platitudes” while “Elizabeth Warren gave a superior performance.” And he conveys the particular difficulties of managing this campaign with Bernie’s refusal to don the host’s T-shirt, as all of the other candidates had, while addressing South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry: “I think Bernie was philosophically right even if politically wrong. Here they were, a group of twenty-plus men and women, competing to be the leader of the free world, and they were forced to wear an ill-fitting T-shirt. Why not put them in clown costumes and have them dance? It was one of those moments where I, as a staffer, both was supremely annoyed with Bernie and loved him. Why couldn’t he be the easy candidate who just dressed like he was told to and read off the teleprompter? But Bernie’s stubbornness and difficultness were the exact qualities that allowed him to buck the political establishment on important issues.”
In the end, Rabin-Havt considers Sanders “the most principled person I could ever imagine running for president,” who “managed to move this country in a more progressive direction than any other person who failed to win the White House.” There are millions who would give this an “Amen.”