Bernie Sanders is in his natural state – of agitation.
It’s just 9 a.m., but the socialist senator, contemplating a presidential run as a Democrat or as a populist independent, is red in the face and his white hair askew. In a conference room at The Washington Post, he’s raising his voice, thumping his index finger on the table and gesturing so wildly that his hand comes within inches of political reporter Karen Tumulty’s face.
“We are living in the United States right now at a time when the top one-tenth of 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent,” the Vermont lawmaker says in his native Brooklyn accent.
“One family, the Walton family of Wal-Mart, owns by itself more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people.”
And then there are the Kochs, “the second wealthiest family in America, worth $85 billion … who are now prepared to buy the United States government.”
“You’re looking at the undermining of American democracy, OK?”
OK, OK, OK. I remark on his prodigious indignation.
“It’s early in the morning,” Sanders boasts. “Catch me later in the afternoon.”
The real outrage, though, is that so few people share his fury.
There’s widespread agreement about the problem – that inequality is as bad as it has been in America since the crash of ’29. Even Republican leaders are talking about it (their solution, alas, is a tax system with even more breaks for the wealthy). But there’s no sign yet of the mass anger that could turn into a political movement.
Last week is the the week we would have seen it. As my colleague Matea Gold reported, the Koch brothers and their fundraising network plan to spend $889 million on the 2016 race. That sort of brazen bid to buy an election should come with naming rights – perhaps the Charles G. and David H. Koch White House, to match the Charles G. and David H. Koch United States Senate they financed in 2014. A half-dozen of those whose new Senate seats were acquired with Koch money attended a Koch confab in Palm Springs over the weekend to thank their patrons.
But the news elicited no more outrage than previous acquisitions of the House of Representatives (aka Citi Field). “The anger is there,” Sanders says, but “it’s an anger that turns into saying, ‘Go to hell, I’m not going to participate in your charade. I’m not voting.’ So it’s a weird kind of anger. It’s not people getting out in the streets. … We’re at the stage of demoralization.”
That leaves Sanders’ populist candidacy in an awkward place. He can mount a symbolic primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton that goes nowhere. “Can you mobilize people? Can you tap the anger that’s out there?” Sanders asks rhetorically. “The answer is – you know what? – I don’t exactly know that we can.”
Or he can run as an independent and perhaps take enough votes in a general election to be a spoiler. But he doesn’t seem inclined to be a Ralph Nader, who doomed Al Gore in 2000 and saw no difference between the two parties. “There is a difference,” says Sanders, who caucuses with Senate Democrats.
Sanders faults President Barack Obama for the current demoralization. “I think he had a moment in history to do what President Roosevelt did in 1932,” he says. “He had the opportunity to say to the American people, ‘look, millions of people have lost jobs … and it’s because of what JPMorgan did, it’s because of what Morgan Stanley did, what Goldman Sachs did.”
“Is that moment today?” Sanders continues. “No … I think he lost that extraordinary opportunity.” Democrats remain “too tepid” in taking on big money, and Clinton won’t be “as bold as she needs to be.”
Clinton comes from the corporate wing of the party. Though there are nascent signs of a tea party of the left emerging, no candidate represents it. Sanders, a 73-year-old socialist, is charismatically challenged, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has more flair, doesn’t appear to be contemplating a run. Even if she were, the primaries are so dominated by big money that it’s not clear Warren could pose a viable challenge to Clinton.
No wonder Sanders is so agitated. “You have to take on the Koch brothers and you have to take on Wall Street and you have to take on the billionaires,” he says, gesticulating madly and fuming about the “oligarchy” running government. “Not to get you too nervous,” he says, but “I think you need a political revolution.”
As Sanders is learning, you can’t have a populist revolution without people.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.