And he’s not totally wrong about that. But if the 2016 election taught the political class anything, it’s that the old limits of plausibility no longer apply, and the prospect of a Sanders presidency is worth taking seriously. Sanders is now running second nationally in the Democratic primary only to Joe Biden, slightly outpacing the other progressive behemoth in the race, Elizabeth Warren. He is first in New Hampshire, and second in both Iowa and delegate-rich California, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. And he continues to raise prodigious sums of money—more than $25 million in the last fundraising quarter, his most successful of the 2020 campaign.
Now, Sanders’ advisers and supporters are beginning to speak more often about how Sanders might govern the country—not just win a campaign. They talk loosely about potential Cabinet members and more concretely about the executive orders he would sign, primarily related to immigration and climate change. The idea of a Vice President Elizabeth Warren is getting air.
Larry Cohen, the former Communications Workers of America president who now chairs the pro-Sanders group Our Revolution, told me that when he spoke with Sanders about his presidential campaign in 2015, Sanders said to him: “Larry, I’m not doing this believing I’m going to be the next president. I’m doing this believing we can build a movement.’”
This year, Cohen said, Sanders told him, “I’m in this to win it.”
So what would the Bernie presidency really look like? During the past several weeks, I spoke with dozens of Sanders supporters, advisers and aides at events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and California about what they would expect from a Bernie Sanders administration—and what’s already being discussed behind the scenes. Who’s in the Cabinet? How does he imagine his first 100 days? In terms of style, they envision a government driven by impatience, one that sees itself with a mandate to confront climate change vigorously, to shore up the nation’s labor unions and defend its immigrant populations. Maybe there won’t really be Medicare for All, thanks to Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate, but they at least see less expensive prescription drugs and health care for more people than currently have it.
They know it won’t be easy. Just as they dream of Sanders bringing his Kohl’s suits and rumpled hair into the White House, they plainly understand the resistance he would create. Moderate Democrats would join Republicans in Washington to obstruct many of his initiatives, complicating his ability to use the full power of the party. So would much of corporate America. But Sanders’ supporters would start making noise, too, perhaps creating a newly potent political constituency of the working class and disaffected young people.
People surrounding Sanders envision something new happening in politics—the “resistance” that marched against Trump in 2017 could turn out for Bernie in January 2021, giving the United States a force in politics it hasn’t seen for generations. “I was thinking about that day and smiling,” Cohen said. “People will be demonstrating all over the world.”
On inauguration day, he said, “Boy, will they be in the streets.”
Sanders’ advisers insist they are focused strictly on the campaign and haven’t started drafting lists of potential White House appointees. But they are at least discussing the possibilities.
The first way to approximate a Sanders administration is to look at the hints dropped by the candidate himself. When it comes to the vice presidency, nearly everyone around him believes that if he became the Democratic nominee, a likely choice would be Warren, his friend and ideological bedfellow. It is not a lock. But according to at least two people close to Sanders’ campaign, she would likely have the right of first refusal.
Sanders nodded in this direction on The Intercept’s “Deconstructed” podcast last month. When asked about the prospect of sharing a ticket with Warren, Sanders himself said, “If I am fortunate enough to become president, I would look absolutely to Elizabeth Warren as somebody who would play a very, very important role in everything that we’re doing.”
In other appearances, Sanders has hinted at his thinking about how to stock the rest of his administration. When Cenk Uygur asked him on “The Young Turks” in 2016 about the potential composition of his Cabinet, Sanders named five people: Cohen, who told me he does not envision himself in the White House, but “in the streets”; Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and author; Robert Reich, the Clinton-era labor secretary; RoseAnn DeMoro, former executive director of National Nurses United; and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
More recently, responding to a question this year from ABC News about whether Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York would play a part in his administration, Sanders replied, “If I am in the White House, she will play a very, very important role, no question, in one way or the other.”
The rest of the Cabinet—and how Sanders would piece it together—has, in progressive circles, become something closer to a fantasy draft.
In his interview with “The Young Turks,” Sanders said McKibben could be “head of the EPA or some other position.” Charles Chamberlain, the chairman of the liberal political action committee Democracy for America, which emerged from Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw somebody like a Bill McKibben becoming our secretary of state.” For shock value, that pick would equal handing Treasury to Ocasio-Cortez.
Jeff Cohen, a founder of the pro-Sanders online activist group RootsAction.org, listed a more traditional choice for secretary of state, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, on a list of “random ideas for Bernie’s cabinet” that he sent to me on Thanksgiving Day. Merkley was the first senator to endorse Sanders in 2016 and sits on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who in 2001 was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, gets floated by other progressive Democrats.
Rep. Ro Khanna, Sanders’ campaign co-chairman and his partner in an effort to cut off U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, is frequently mentioned by Sanders supporters as a potential secretary of Defense. So is Andrew Bacevich, the retired Army colonel and longtime international relations professor. “I doubt that,” Bacevich said. “I’m 72-years-old and I’ve got other things on my plate.”
Sanders knows people who could cause corporate America discomfort. He told Bloomberg Politics in 2015 that for his Treasury secretary, “Somebody like a Bob Reich would be somebody who I think would be good.” He has praised Joseph Stiglitz, the economist and Nobel laureate. The economist Stephanie Kelton, a professor at Stony Brook University, is an economic adviser to his campaign.