A version of this story ran in the May 2015 issue.
Above: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, photographed at Serranos restaurant in Austin after a Q&A luncheon with potential donors and supporters of his possible presidential primary run.
There’s one question Democrats face as they head into the 2016 presidential election. How should they feel about Hillary Clinton? The coalition Barack Obama built happily came out to vote in his two presidential elections, but turnout was pathetic in 2010 and 2014 when he wasn’t on the ticket. Clinton’s ability to inherit that coalition is debatable.
Some of the party’s faithful just want to maximize their chances of taking a third consecutive term, and they think the Clintons’ careful and calculated brand of center-left politics is the thing to do it. Others are antsy. They’ve seen the GOP’s far right drag their party to them with great success, and they want someone to subject Clinton to the same type of pressures. But they need a candidate. Elizabeth Warren has declined to run, and Martin O’Malley is a ball of ambition.
Enter U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Congress’ sole self-avowed socialist, who came through Texas at the beginning of April in the middle of a cross-country trip whose purpose, he said, was to judge the energies of the left and to raise money in anticipation of a possible primary run against Clinton. Sanders would be as unusual a candidate as we’ve seen in America for quite some time. He’s not quite a Dennis Kucinich or a Mike Gravel, but it’s not that he’s setting out to win either. His self-proclaimed models are people such as Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean, who ran and lost, but inspired future political activists.
Obama’s 2008 campaign, Sanders told the Observer at an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant, “will go down in history as one of the great campaigns ever run.” But, he continued, “the day after the election, he said, ‘Thank you for electing me, but I think I can go on from here without you. I do not need the millions of people who were actively involved in my campaign.’” The kind of change the left wants, he said, is not possible without “mass organized activity” of the kind that has not existed in the country in some five decades—the kind Sanders experienced as a young man in the civil rights, anti-war and kibbutz movements.
As he talks, he has the feel of a radical giving it one last college try. But his reception in Austin was decidedly warm. In addition to small venues—he spoke to a union hall—he gave the keynote at one of the Travis County Democratic Party’s main annual fundraisers. Outside, his communications director, a silver-haired former Chicago newspaperman who dimly recalls his last trip to Texas some decades ago, marvels at the previous day’s turnout: He calls it a “field of dreams” moment.
Inside, Sanders, with a mishmash accent that’s part Brooklyn and part New England, speaks in front of a giant Texas flag. “The biggest problem this country faces,” he tells the crowd, “is that we don’t talk about our serious problems.” He gives a 20-minute lecture on rising economic inequality, student debt, Wall Street and America’s diminishing middle class. He’s treated to an unusual number of standing ovations for a speech so filled with numbers. It’s not exactly Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America,” but it’s a tune a lot of Democrats will feel pulled to sing along to.