Bernie Sanders isn’t changing a thing.
Sunday’s NBC News-YouTube debate in South Carolina was perhaps the biggest moment of the Vermont senator’s campaign. He arrived at the debate having surged into a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in Iowa, opened up a significant lead in New Hampshire and emerged as a true contender to win the Democratic nomination. It would have been natural for Sanders to start presenting himself as a more traditional candidate, downplaying how liberal he is and taking steps toward the political center.
But Sanders was his socialist self. He released a massive, $1 trillion per year plan to create a single-payer, government-run health care system on the eve of the debate. He then aggressively defended the proposal during the session, even though it has virtually no chance of being adopted, as Hillary Clinton kept emphasizing.
He repeatedly called, often shouting as if he were not wearing a microphone, for a “political revolution” that would change politics. He spoke several times about the importance of campaign finance reform, an issue that ranks low when voters speak about their chief concerns with American government.
When a moderator asked him about the sexual scandals surrounding Bill Clinton, Sanders complained about the question. It was the same tactic the Vermont senator used in an earlier debate, saying he was tired of talking about Hillary Clinton’s controversial e-mail practices as secretary of state.
Usually, candidates want to discuss major vulnerabilities of their opponents. But Sanders wants to run his campaign his way, and has opted not to change course, even as he rises in the polls.
“I cannot walk down the street — Secretary Clinton knows this — without being told how much I have to attack Secretary Clinton,” Sanders said, adding, “I have avoided doing that. Trying to run an issue-oriented campaign.”
He continued, “I'm going to debate Secretary Clinton, Governor O'Malley, on the issues facing the American people, not Bill Clinton's personal behavior.”
Sanders of course did attack Clinton at the debate. He suggested that she should not have given paid speeches at big financial firms like Goldman Sachs and was insufficiently committed to breaking up large banks.
Those are familiar criticisms from Sanders.
But his overall posture in the debate was exactly as it has been for months. He turned almost every question into a discourse on the why the rich have too much power in America. He struggled to discuss foreign affairs, beyond suggesting the U.S. should not deploy troops in the Middle East.
Clinton, aware of Sanders’ rise, attacked him more than in past debates. But Sanders then would pivot back to his broader ideas about a political revolution and getting money out of politics.
"Very little is going to be done to transform our economy and to create the kind of middle class we need unless we end a corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy. We’ve got to get rid of Super PACs, we’ve got to get rid of Citizens’ United and what we’ve got to do is create a political revolution which revitalizes American democracy, which brings millions of young people and working people into the political process," he said at the conclusion of the debate.
Clinton entered the debate determined to attack Sanders’ health care proposal as unrealistic. But that was unnecessary, once Sanders released the details of his idea. A $1 trillion per year plan that would change how nearly every American gets his or her health care is as unlikely to happen as Donald Trump’s border wall funded by the Mexican government.
To put the $1 trillion number in perspective, Obamacare spends about $1 trillion over 10 years. The federal government spends about $4 trillion in total each year on all programs.
But the proposal illustrates how Sanders is campaigning. While he is often likened to losing Democratic candidates of the past, like Bill Bradley and Howard Dean, Sanders has a much more radical vision than either of them. He describes himself as a democratic socialist, is skeptical of capitalism and is intentionally campaigning on the idea that the U.S. should be more like countries in Western Europe that have much higher taxes on the rich and take very aggressive steps to equalize income among their citizens.
Sanders, despite his long tenure in public office, is also something of an outsider, particularly compared to Clinton, who is close with many elected officials from both parties.
But Sanders’ model for changing the political system is much different than that of Trump, another outsider candidate. The real estate mogul is in many ways inwardly focused. Trump argues that he can change politics through the force of his personality, leadership skills and vision. It is a revolution of one.
Sanders’ vision is to create a revolution of millions who are frustrated with how America’s government and financial systems work.
"Do you know why we can’t do what every other country — major country on Earth is doing? It’s because we have a campaign finance system that is corrupt, we have super PACs, we have the pharmaceutical industry pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into campaign contributions and lobbying, and the private insurance companies as well," Sanders said.
He added, "that this is really about is not the rational way to go forward — it’s Medicare for all — it is whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry. That’s what this debate should be about."
Sunday, that revolution was televised. Sanders was asked in the debate why he has such low support among African-Americans so far. His answer was the same as it has been for months: his message is brilliant, black people just haven’t heard it enough yet.
“When the African American community becomes familiar with my congressional record and with our agenda, and with our views on the economy, and criminal justice — just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African American community, so will the Latino community. We have the momentum, we're on a path to a victory,” he said.