BARABOO, Wis.— While the political world was fixated on Hillary Clinton’s much-anticipated recent return to Iowa for the first time since her loss in the 2008 caucuses there, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, was in Wisconsin, baiting his host state.
“I’m very happy to be in your beautiful state because it reminds me very much of my beautiful state,” he told the crowd at Fighting Bob Fest, an annual gathering of progressive activists in Wisconsin, named for trust-busting former Gov. Bob La Follette. “You should be very proud you have the second-best cheddar cheese in the country.”
It was a joke, of course — one well received, with chortles and playful boos in a crowd that included a not insignificant contingency of people sporting “Run, Bernie, run” buttons and stickers. After all, Sanders devotees say they admire the senator precisely because he has never shied away from the unvarnished truth as he sees it, whether about cheese or about politics.
For the next hour, Sanders, who is weighing a 2016 presidential run, laid down more unvarnished truths from his perspective, spending a considerable portion of his speech railing against unequal distribution of wealth, still-too-high unemployment, corporate greed, the insidious power of money in politics and the vision of the billionaire GOP donor brothers Charles and David Koch, using provocative language generally avoided by more mainstream Democratic candidates.
“Today we are taking on a very, very powerful billionaire class who want to move this country to an oligarchic form of society where they have all the power,” he said. “While they have unlimited sums of money, what we have is the people.”
Then Sanders proceeded to outline his own ambitious national agenda: overturning the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United campaign finance decision with a constitutional amendment; spending at least $1 trillion on rebuilding crumbling infrastructure; passing a massive jobs bill; implementing a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care system; expanding — instead of curtailing — Social Security benefits; opposing free trade agreements; and rising to meet the challenge of climate change.
In Beltway circles, the proposals might be written off as a liberal fever dream at best and detached from the realities of governance in a closely divided country at worst. But at the Sauk County Fairgrounds, where Sanders spoke framed against golden farm fields, activists gave the senator rousing standing ovations.
“He speaks my language,” gushed Eileen Ratzka, 67, who came from Des Plaines, Illinois, to find like minds. “The language of the average working person.”
Fifteen months before the first ballots will be cast in a presidential primary, Clinton is already considered to have a lock on the Democratic nomination, should she choose to run, enjoying broad support among Democratic voters and a formidable campaign and fundraising infrastructure already behind her.
But if there is to be any kind of insurgency from the party’s left flank — however improbable its chances for ultimate success — it might begin with Sanders and liberal activists, like the ones here, who say it is past time for a candidate who wholeheartedly embraces progressive ideals.
“This idea that everyone’s supposed to fold their tent and go home where there’s a front-runner — I don’t really believe that,” said Ron Standish, 68, an activist from Madison, adding that Clinton represents “more of the same.”
“I think we’ve had enough Clintons, and I know we’ve had enough Bushes,” he said.
John Endrizzi, 65, was even more skeptical of a Clinton campaign, inevitable or not.
“If she’s put into place by the powers that be, so be it. But I’m not excited about her as a candidate,” he said. “I don’t believe that the gestures she’s made toward the middle class are actually sincere on her part. I don’t feel like she is who she purports to be.”
When asked if he has a preferred candidate for 2016, all Endrizzi had to do was jab his thumbs at his sweatshirt, bearing a picture of Sanders’ face in red, white and blue.
“He has the ability to stand up to corporate interests,” he said. “He says exactly what he believes, and he’s not paid to say any of it.”
Indeed, the same questions that dogged Clinton in her 2008 campaign about her authenticity and principles seemed to linger here, on the minds of voters six years after her last attempt.
Craig Windsberg is a registered Republican, at Fighting Bob Fest as part of a historical project to preserve La Follette’s childhood home. But in need of a sweater for the chilly weather and surrounded by progressive vendors, Windsberg decided to go with Bernie gear.
“I admire anybody that speaks his mind. Bernie doesn’t have anyone to tell him what to say, he doesn’t need anyone to give him talking points. He speaks from his heart,” Windsberg said. “Mrs. Clinton doesn’t seem to have any core values other than she wants power, and I think the biggest problem she has running for president is that she seems like she wants it too much. I don’t know what she really stands for.”
Still, even acolytes seemed to recognize that getting Sanders and his unabashedly liberal ideas to the White House is likely a quixotic mission.
Father and son Jack Degnan, 53, and Chris Degnan, 22, were gushing about Sanders before his speech, crediting him with bringing oft-ignored issues to the fore, although they also said they had no qualms with Clinton.
“The Republicans are scary, and the Democrats are scared, so they don’t define themselves the way they should,” Jack Degnan said. “Bernie Sanders does that better than any Democrat.”
But is he electable?
Not a chance, the Degnans said.
“He’s got too much of a backbone,” Chris Degnan said.