In New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders Rekindles 2016 Nostalgia as a Case for 2020

The senator is reminding voters that he championed much of the Democratic Party’s current policy foundation at a time when it was largely considered radical and extreme.

By David Catanese, Senior Politics Writer ?May 28, 2019
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By David Catanese, Senior Politics Writer ?May 28, 2019, at 1:32 p.m.

Bernie: Remember, I Was First

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks with a voter during a campaign stop, Monday, May 27, 2019, in Warner, N.H. (AP Photo/Hunter Woodall)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks with a voter during a campaign stop, May 27, 2019, in Warner, N.H.(Hunter Woodall/AP)

WARNER, N.H. — The most common phrase out of Bernie Sanders' mouth during a Memorial Day swing through New Hampshire wasn't "Medicare for All" or "political revolution."

It was "four years ago."

Vermont's socialist senator, whose runaway win in 2016's Granite State primary established him as a formidable contender for the Democratic nomination and propelled him into a protracted, career-defining campaign against Hillary Clinton, took Monday to use nostalgia from that presidential race to try and shore up support for his current one.

In a trio of ice cream social stops with the co-founders of Ben & Jerry's, Sanders repeatedly reminded crowds that it was he who first championed a litany of progressive policy ideas that have morphed into a series of modern day litmus tests for the crop of 2020 candidates – and that it was they who delivered him the victory that rattled and eventually reshaped the core of the Democratic Party.

"Four years ago, we talked about the existential threat to our country – and the world – of climate change," Sanders told more than 500 people in the backyard of a bookstore in downtown Warner. "And people, mmmmm, did not quite agree. Well, today they do agree."

Standing on the front porch of a home in Laconia, Sanders recalled that "four years ago" he campaigned on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. "That radical and crazy idea? Guess what? Seven states in the country have passed legislation to raise the minimum wage," he said.

A couple hours later as the sun set in Rollinsford, Sanders name-checked reducing income inequality, providing health care as a human right and ending the war on drugs as causes that initially garnered momentum in the state during his 2016 quest.

"A lot has changed in the last four years – and New Hampshire has had a lot to do with that," he told the gathering.

If not nakedly explicit, the message Sanders presented was crystal clear: There are many presidential candidates to choose from this round, but just remember that on the most consequential issues, "I was first." It's an attempt to distinguish himself from the dizzying field of 24 candidates pursuing the Democratic Party presidential nomination without directly disparaging any of them. But it also conveys the challenge of rekindling the magic of his first surprise run a second time over, especially given the vast array of options available to Democratic voters.

Sanders' pointed pitch in New Hampshire comes as former Vice President Joe Biden has carved out a polling lead in each of the early nominating states, even as he's kept a thin campaign schedule. Biden, 76, will hold his first public event in 10 days in Houston on Tuesday when he conducts a town hall with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

The 77-year-old Sanders is scheduled to hold six events over Monday and Tuesday alone.

While Sanders is most associated with his early advocacy for Medicare for All, it appears he's now seeking to take ownership of the entire Rubik's cube of progressive policy planks that are dominating the 2020 debate, from climate change to criminal justice reform. A 2016 analysis of Sanders' most uttered phrases by FiveThirtyEight showed he spoke of health care and campaign finance reform far more frequently than he addressed mass incarceration and decriminalizing marijuana. Sanders' campaign was criticized by some African American leaders, who said that his last run lacked a strong racial justice component – something he's worked to change this time.

But to many of his supporters, Sanders' remains their top choice because he's seen as the genuine article who had the guts to challenge the system at a time when Clinton was adhering to cautious incrementalism.

"He's the first person in our history to ever come forward and run a campaign without any corporate help. It was all people-based. He's doing the same thing again," said Ernest Montenegro, an arts professor from Claremont.

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's, a longtime Sanders' backer who spoke before the senator at each stop, made the more acute argument. He boasted that Sanders voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement "before it was cool" and branded him as the first presidential candidate in history to embrace universal health care.

"Look at all the other presidential candidates that are following in his footsteps," Cohen said.

Beyond his parcel of policy wishes, Sanders also incorporated a more clear-cut argument on his ability to win, at each stop touting polling in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to demonstrate his strength over President Donald Trump in a general election.

"We are the strongest campaign to defeat the worst president in American history," he said.

He boasted that he won more votes of young people than Clinton and Trump combined in 2016 and asserted, "If young people voted at the same rate as older people did, we would transform this country. …The young people are not afraid of bold ideas."

Nevertheless, Sanders isn't the originator of every smart campaign idea. In fact, it appears he's now adopting a popular tactic of one of his opponents.

After each event on Monday, he announced he would stay and stand in a line for anyone who wanted a selfie – a practice begun by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

David Catanese, Senior Politics Writer

David Catanese is senior politics writer for U.S. News & World Report and founder of the blog T...? Read more

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