Bernie Sanders is back, and he’s doubling down on the themes that propelled him to a decisive primary win in Wisconsin in 2016: Health care for all, free college, an economy that doesn’t cater to the 1%.
But he’s also sounding the alarm that President Donald Trump is taking the nation down a road that puts democracy at risk.
“What this election is about is whether we strengthen democracy or we move toward oligarchy,” Sanders told a shivering crowd of well over 1,000 near the shore of Lake Mendota, many of them holding “Bernie” signs.
The Friday evening rally at James Madison Park put what promises to be another wrenching campaign cycle on the front burner. It was the first stop on a four-day tour through the Midwest that will take the 77-year-old Vermont senator to Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania in an effort to flip those states into the blue column after they went for the Republican Trump in 2016.
“The ideas that we brought forth four years ago were considered by the political establishment and by the media establishment as ideas that were radical, that were extreme, ideas that no one in America supported,” said Sanders, an independent who’s running as a Democrat. “Well, I think it’s fair to say that things have changed over the last four years.”
His thin white hair framing a face reddened by the relentless wind, Sanders ran down a list of the progressive initiatives that helped make him a credible threat to the nomination of Hillary Clinton — raising the minimum wage, universal health care, ending the war on drugs, a massive spending spree to repair the nation’s infrastructure and a full-on effort to deal with climate change — positions that have become widely adopted by many of the 17 candidates vying against him for the nomination.
Four year ago, he said, he was asked during a debate to name the biggest threat to the nation’s security.
“I think the person thought that I would say, ‘It’s ISIS’ or, ‘It’s Al Qaeda.’ And the answer I gave was climate change,” he said. “Four years ago that was a radical idea. It ain’t a radical idea today."
During his 45-minute speech, Sanders never mentioned his Democratic opponents. Instead he delivered a blistering attack on the man he hopes to face in 2020.
“I happen you believe that whether you are a progressive or a conservative or a moderate, you are not proud that today we have a president of the United States who is a pathological liar,” he said.
Sanders blasted Trump for what he portrayed as a massive sellout of the nation’s working class to big business interests that are reaping their gains on the backs of laborers struggling to pay their bills and unable to afford basic health care.
“The biggest lie of all was when he said during the campaign that he was going to defend the interests of the working class of our country and that he was going to take on the powerful special interests to do that,” he said. “What a monstrous lie that was.”
Despite a wind chill well below freezing, the crowd remained energized until Sanders’ final exhortation to “roll up your sleeves.”
“This is no time for anybody to be talking about being depressed or in despair,” he said. “Now is the time to get to work, now is the time to transform this country, now is the time to win this election.”
Sanders, who took over 57% of the Dane County vote in the state's 2016 presidential primary, was playing to a supportive crowd.
“I think that he’s shown the most compassion toward communities than any candidate I’ve come across,” said Mushka Yurkew, a 56-year-old artist.
“I see him as a stand-out that’s not like the norm of everyone else in D.C.” said Orion Kiesch, a 42-year-old videographer.
While some maintain that at 77, Sanders' age will work against him, Kiesch and his companion Lindsey Erickson, a 35-year-old dental assistant, brushed aside those concerns.
“I have patients who are in better health in their 70s than people in their 50s,” said Erickson. “Age is nothing. Age doesn’t really matter.”
Others were still deciding which Democratic candidate they would support.
“I think the big concern for the next election cycle is making sure that there is a candidate that can reach across and made sure that we take back the White House,” said Andrew Johnson, a 35-year-old self-employed worker. “And that we don’t have somebody who’s too far to the left and in the general election falls flat.”