MONTPELIER, Vt.– Once a democratic socialist, always a democratic socialist. Once a scold of big money in politics, still a scold.
No one can accuse Bernie Sanders of flip-flopping over his four decades in public life. Rock steady, he’s inhabited the same ideological corner from which he now takes on Hillary Rodham Clinton in an improbable quest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Here he is in 1974, as the 32-year-old candidate for U.S. Senate of a fledgling leftist party in Vermont called Liberty Union: “A handful of banks and billionaires control the economic and political life of America. … America is becoming less and less of a democracy and more and more of an oligarchy.”
And now, in an Associated Press interview: “This is a rigged economy, which works for the rich and the powerful, and is not working for ordinary Americans. … You know this country just does not belong to a handful of billionaires.”
Some see him as a broken record, others as a person who has been telling the truth all along and just waiting for enough people to listen.
“The fascinating thing about Bernie right now is that the agenda has caught up with Bernie,” said Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political science professor and longtime Sanders watcher.
During Sanders’ near decade as mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, during his eight terms holding Vermont’s lone House seat and during his near decade in the Senate, the message has stayed the same: The rich are absconding with an immorally large part of the country’s wealth, and ordinary people have been getting the short end of the stick.
Clinton has gone from opposing same-sex marriage rights to supporting them. Howard Dean, the last Vermont presidential candidate, was a centrist governor who became a liberal representing the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” when he saw the left flank open in the 2004 primary campaign.
Sanders, now 73, favored gay marriage rights before it became fashionable in Democratic circles. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in the mid-1990s signed by Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton.
Early in her primary campaign, Clinton has spoken about the gap between the rich and the middle class, in an appeal to the party’s liberal wing. The Republican contenders, too, are taking up the problem of income inequality, although with much different solutions in mind than the Democrats.
Steady-as-he-goes Sanders has been at it for decades. He’s admired Canada’s single-payer health care system since way back, talking up “nationalized health care” during his unsuccessful run for Congress in 1988. When Republicans charge that Democrats would bring European-style socialism to the U.S., Sanders says bring it on.
“I can hear the Republican attack ad right now: `He wants America to look more like Scandinavia,” George Stephanopoulos said while interviewing Sanders on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sanders replied, “That’s right. That’s right. And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality? What’s wrong when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do, a higher minimum wage than we do, and they’re stronger on the environment?”
If he’s undergone any transformation, it’s in his political affiliations. He long ago dropped the Liberty Union banner and has run as an Independent in his successful elections in Vermont.
He says he remains one “in my heart,” but has caucused with Democrats in Congress. He chose to go for the Democratic nomination and, if he loses the party primaries, says he won’t run for president as an Independent.
In an unsuccessful 1986 race for governor as an Independent, Sanders said, “It is time to stop the tweedledee, tweedledum politics of the Republican and Democratic parties.”
This time, he’s trying to shake one of the tweedles up from the inside.