By Guy Page
Bernie Sanders has never hidden his fervent admiration for iconic Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926). The New Yorker Magazine in 2015 described our junior senator’s enduring veneration in detail: Sanders’ 1979 Folkways Records audio documentary about his hero, the portrait of Debs he hung in Burlington City Hall after he was elected mayor in 1981, and the plaque honoring Debs on display in Sen. Sanders’ office in Washington, D.C..
The New Yorker said simply: “Sanders adores him.”
In the 1979 documentary, others speak but only Sanders speaks the words of Debs, including this 1915 speech against U.S. involvement in World War One, given while running for Congress from Indiana:
“I am opposed to every war but one. I am for that war, with heart and soul, and that is the worldwide war of the social revolution. In that war, I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.”
Sanders’ hero-worship of Debs is important because it may provide insight into whether Sanders will run for president again. Sanders himself won’t say yet. Yet this week, rather than meet with Vermont voters just a month before his attempted re-election, Sanders is off on a nine-state political tour that includes Iowa, where presidential caucuses are scheduled for February 3, 2020. Larry Cohen, chair of the pro-Sanders group Our Revolution, told The Hill last month he expects Sanders to run. Longtime Vermont progressive Greg Guma of Burlington told the July 13, 2018 Weekly Standard the same thing: “he’s running for president.”
Sept. 3, 2018, speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire (home of the first 2020 state primary, Feb. 11), Sanders called incumbent Donald Trump a “pathological liar” who “works night and day on behalf of his fellow billionaires….And most reprehensible, we have a president who is not doing what almost every president in American history has done: When you make it into the Oval Office, you understand you’ve got a sacred responsibility to bring the American people together. Today we have a president who for cheap political reasons is trying to divide us up.”
And that was before the incendiary Kavanaugh hearings. He sounds like someone running for president. He also sounds like a fervent class-struggle warrior channeling his inner Debs, co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical “Wobblies.”
So why should the memory of Eugene Debs affect Sanders decision to run again? Here’s the thing: Debs ran for president five times. He won 6 percent of the vote in tumultuous 1912, when newcomer Democrat Woodrow Wilson beat Bull Moose Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt and reluctant GOP incumbent William Howard Taft. He was relentless. Among defiant socialists his stature reached mythic proportions when, imprisoned for sedition, he nonetheless ran for president again. Despite the practical liability of campaigning from a jail cell, he still received 3.6 percent of the vote, just under a million voters. The year was 1920 — exactly one century ago. Released in 1921 and undaunted to the end, only ill health prevented him from running for a sixth time in 1924, two years before his death.
I can’t see inside Bernie Sanders’ head or pretend to insider knowledge. But I suspect he sees himself as Debs 2.0, the 21st century bearer of his socialist (small “s” this time for reasons of political convenience) banner.
Here’s something else Sanders has in common with Debs — the latter ran for Congress, but was clearly more interested in becoming president than simply serving his home state. Vermonters, take note. Of the two major party candidates for U.S. Senate in the election in November, only one — Republican Lawrence Zupan — would be satisfied to “only” serve Vermont as its junior senator. If elected Zupan will go to Washington to advocate for constituents, sit in committee meetings, and cast votes on the Senate floor. When not in Washington he’ll come home to listen to the people who sent him there. That’s what we expect from our senators.
If re-elected, Sen. Sanders on the other hand seems unlikely to spend much time, effort or thought on such mundane tasks. He’s got staff for most of that, and if he misses another 37 out of 38 senate votes as he did in the first quarter of 2016, what of it? The socialist arc of history is calling. He will likely be focused on one thing: running for president.
How else could he look his portrait of Eugene Debs in the eye?
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.