Bernie’s Bro

Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager on why Bernie still won’t call himself a Democrat but is the party’s best hope.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally against the Republican tax plan on December 13, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally against the Republican tax plan on Dec. 13 in Washington.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary was ultimately unsuccessful, but—especially with time—it hasn’t felt that way to his admirers. Not only did Sanders surpass expectations, he also instantly made himself one of the most visible and famous politicians in the country, and his economic populism may set the tone for the 2020 primary (whether or not he runs).

Indeed, Jeff Weaver, who managed Sanders’ campaign, has titled his new book How Bernie Won: Inside the Revolution That’s Taking Back Our Country—and Where We Go From Here. In it, Weaver looks back on the sometimes-contentious Democratic primary and explains why and how he thinks the party needs to change. I suspect the book will also, inadvertently or not, remind a lot of Hillary Clinton admirers why they disliked Weaver during the campaign, which he wanted to see carried on to the end even as it became clear that the nomination was going to Clinton.

I recently spoke by phone with Weaver. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Sanders has appeal with Trump voters, how to distinguish between neoliberalism and Trumpism, and why Sanders is still an independent.

Isaac Chotiner: What did Bernie Sanders “win”?

Jeff Weaver: Look, I think if you look at the campaign when he started at 3 percent in the polls, the issues that he was talking about—Medicare for all, $15 minimum wage, free tuition at public colleges and universities—those were considered fringe issues. Now, if you’ll look at the Democratic Party, in the national debate, hundreds of candidates are running across the country on Medicare for all, and a $15 minimum wage is the accepted position of the Democratic Party.

Is that what you see as his political “revolution”?

The political revolution is about creating a government and an economy that works for everybody. His campaign helped move that forward tremendously in this country. And, I think, woke up a lot of the establishment, frankly, that there is widespread grassroots support for these bold progressive initiatives. In addition to the policy advances, I would say that the level of grassroots activism in this country since 2016 has been overwhelming. It is not entirely because of his campaign, but certainly his campaign is partly responsible for the tremendous amount of grassroots energy you see around the country on issue after issue and in opposition to the Trump presidency.

Are you a registered Democrat?

I live in Virginia, where there’s no party registration. I’ve lived in Vermont, where there is no party registration also. Were I to live in a state with party registration, I would be registered as a Democrat, yes. How’s that? I guess that’s as much as I can give you.

Is Bernie?

Bernie also lives in a state that has no party registration, the state of Vermont.

Right, but Vermont has had Democratic senators before.

Has one [now]. Sen. Patrick Leahy is a long-serving and distinguished senator from Vermont. Bernie Sanders is part of the Democratic leadership in the United States Senate, has caucused with Democrats in the Congress since his arrival in the Congress in 1990. He has provided over $5 million, the last two years, in funding directly to down-ballot Democratic candidates. He campaigned for Democratic candidates around the country. He is the endorsed candidate of the Vermont Democratic Party. If you go to their website and look at their federal officials, he is listed as one of them. Does he have a card in his pocket that says he’s a Democrat? No. Does he appear on the ballot as an Independent? Yes. Is he a Democrat? I think that grassroots Democrats consider him a Democrat.

I think he’s the longest-serving independent in the Senate, or in Congress, or something.

In Congress, yes, in the history of Congress.

But when I asked you originally about what Bernie won, it was about changing the Democratic Party. So why, exactly, doesn’t he fully embrace the party itself? Look, parties have branding problems. Would joining the party and offering his imprimatur help the Democratic Party in some way?

One of the great challenges that the Democratic Party faces, and this is true with the Republican Party too, let’s be clear, is that increasingly young voters in overwhelming numbers, when they’re registered to vote, register to vote as independents or no party affiliation. That’s just a reality, and that’s a function of the fact that the millennial generation relates to institutions, political institutions, religious institutions, economic institutions in a different way than those of us who are older do. I think that what he does, and I think you saw this in the primary process, is by running as he does as part of what I call a grand Democratic coalition, he generates a tremendous amount of credibility for Democratic candidates with nonaligned, or independent, voters who are an increasing share of the electorate.

If you look at his performance in the primaries and caucuses, the majority of [states] that allow not-aligned, or independent, voters to participate, he won those voters by 3-to-1 or 4-to-1, in some cases. Which is part of the reason why he would have been such a formidable general-election candidate against Trump.

But, at the same time, Bernie Sanders could not have gotten as far as he did as a third-party candidate. The Democrats offered him a platform for the “revolution.”

And the help was the other way around. For those few folks in the Democratic Party who were upset Bernie Sanders ran in their primary, can you imagine how upset they would have been if he had run outside the Democratic Party? That would have been a disaster. Something that he would not have wanted to do. As it turned out, Secretary Clinton did not win, unfortunately.

No, it would have guaranteed that.

It would have guaranteed, yes, right. For anybody who wants Bernie Sanders not to run in the Democratic Party, I ask you to consider the alternative.

The critique from Bernie Sanders and also left politicians in the U.K. and Europe is that the center-left parties have been too neoliberal, which they define as being too cozy with Wall Street, privatizing a lot of industries, lobbyists having too much power, and, in their view, watching working men and women get screwed. How do you distinguish Democratic neoliberalism from what we are seeing now?

There’s nothing neoliberal about what’s going on in Trump’s White House. The Trump White House is a full-on right-wing assault on the country. It is a looting of America by the corporate interests. No, what’s going on in the Trump White House is nothing like neoliberalism, no relationship to it. If you look at the tactics of the Trump White House: the intentional division of the country by race, by gender, by sexual orientation, identity, by country of origin. These are the far-right tactics that are often used around the world, but we have not seen them used, to this degree, in America. I mean, successfully by a sitting president ever. You compare George W. Bush, who was certainly conservative, and doesn’t share any of the views that I share on most anything, but you cannot argue that he is anything like Donald Trump.

I don’t think he became president to enrich himself. How about that?

No, that’s right, and the tax bill the Trump forces passed in the Congress, George W. Bush would never have dreamed of anything that crazy. It’s a very different thing. But the problem with neoliberalism is not just that the policies that it advocates don’t benefit working-class people of any race. The problem is that it breaks faith with the people who have formed the foundation of the party and allows them to be picked off by people like Trump. Because they don’t have faith that the Democratic Party is standing with them, and their families, in their day-to-day bread-and-butter struggles. That is the problem. That was the problem with the Clinton administration, the Bill Clinton administration, with things like NAFTA, which tore away the historical bonds between working-class people of all races. The African-American middle class in places like Detroit was hit, in some ways hardest, by the deindustrialization that followed the NAFTA agreement.

Then once those bonds are broken, then what you see, in the Clinton administration, was they then had to resort to this very cynical triangulation against some of the most vulnerable members of the traditional Democratic coalition with things like the crime bill, and the so-called welfare reform bill, and DOMA, in order to try and maintain power. Because they had lost this historical connection the Democratic Party has always had with working-class Americans. That is what the progressive movement is trying to re-establish. People like Bernie Sanders are trying to re-establish faith with the working-class communities of all races across this country that the Democratic Party can, in fact, be an advocate for them.

I have been trying to understand, as the country is being looted by the Trump administration and Trump family, why isn’t this registering more with average people? Because it seems like the type of thing that every single person, basically, should be enraged about. I do think part of the problem is that everyone already thinks Washington is full of crooks. Everyone thinks all politicians are crooks. Everyone thinks Wall Street has too much say. Everyone thinks lobbyists control government. “The whole system is broken blah, blah, blah, blah.” Bernie says that and a lot of politicians say that. They’re not wrong and Bernie’s not wrong, but I do think that there’s a certain cynicism that we’ve helped inculcate in people. Which means, when they see real looting, of a degree they’ve never seen before, they don’t recognize it. Do you think what I’m saying has merit to it?

I do think that there is merit to what you are saying. I think there was a poll just out that ranked politician as the least trustworthy profession in the country. You’re right about that. That position is broadly held. But how you combat that is that you actually have a party that is unabashedly standing with everyday people in every zip code to try to make their lives better. As I point out in the book, the challenge for Democrats is greater. When you live in a culture where people widely believe that the government is either inept or corrupt, that is to the benefit of the Republicans, in general.

How we remedy that is that Democrats have to stand for something different. They have to do it in a concrete way that people understand is meant to better their lives. Whether one can accomplish that in the short term or not is difficult. Bernie Sanders was often criticized for articulating a set of policy proposals that were not all going to be 100 percent passed by the Congress the day he became president. That criticism was leveled over and over again. I think they completely missed the mark. People want to hear about the vision you have for the country. They get that it’s not all going to happen overnight, or that maybe some of it may not happen at all. But they want to be convinced that you are actually going to fight for that.

I’m not going to ask you if Bernie is going to run again, because I know you will not give me an answer–

Well, I will. It won’t be the answer you want, but I’ll give you an answer.

All right. Let’s hear it.

He hasn’t decided yet. How’s that? There’s the answer. The answer you didn’t want. There you go. That is an answer.

Do you have faith that there are other people whose names are being mentioned for the 2020 race—Elizabeth Warren, someone like that—who could carry on what you see as the revolution? Or do you feel like, right now, the state of the Democratic Party is such that Bernie is the only possible standard-bearer for the next presidential election?

I do think that Bernie Sanders is the best standard-bearer and the candidate who would most likely bring success for the Democrats in 2020. I do firmly believe that, and for a lot of the reasons we discussed: his support among independent voters. His support among young voters. His support among working-class voters of all races.

That being said, if he were to decide not to run, I think … I’m not going to handicap another candidate, but let me say this. I think that the Democratic bench is full of a number of very talented, highly qualified people. Some are more progressive than others, but I am confident that the Democrats will be able to nominate a candidate who will be successful against Trump. That being said, I don’t think that any of us, as much as we all despise what Trump is doing, I don’t think any of us should put ourselves in the position of saying, “It’s obvious that he’ll be defeated and there’s no problem.”

You were often described as being willing to go further than Bernie when you were running the campaign, whether in terms of tactics or fighting on to the end. Was that a fair description of your dynamic?

I’m not really sure what that meant. Everybody has a role to play in a campaign. There is a candidate. There’s a campaign manager. There’s press spokespeople and everybody has a role to play. I considered myself a loyal lieutenant in the 2016 race. I certainly don’t feel like I did anything, maybe with one exception, that was either unratified or unsupported.

What was the exception?

Well, there was this one episode after the Iowa Jefferson–Jackson dinner, where I suggested that Hillary Clinton would be a good vice presidential candidate. I think people missed the point of what I was saying. I discuss that in the book. But it was attacked as a sexist comment. It was certainly not the intent of it to be a sexist comment. It was meant to highlight the fact that Obama had not chosen Secretary Clinton as his vice president, at a time when she was trying to position herself as being very close to President Obama. But anyway, that point was lost in the scrum of the campaign. The Clinton people ran with it, as did some in the media, so I would say that that was a statement that was not ratified or supported. But other than that one incident, I feel like I faithfully served as a loyal lieutenant and did the job that the campaign and the candidate wanted me to do.

When it was announced that you would run Our Revolution, the political action organization Sanders backed, after the campaign, some staffers seemed to express disappointment or were angry that you were chosen, and resigned. Why was that?

Look, campaigns are hard-fought things and, as I point out in the introduction of my book, I did not use my book or did not want to use it as a place to grind axes with people I had worked with on a historic campaign.

I know, I was disappointed by that.

I know. Everybody likes the bloodletting. But I think there was a difference of opinion about how to move our revolution forward. The senator, I think, supported my view of it and not theirs. And like any endeavor, sometimes people choose to go their own way. I think that’s great. I wish everybody who worked on the campaign well, and I hope they are successful in the future in helping to move the revolution forward.