“We’re not going to play any of our bummer songs, just the happy ones,” Elizabeth Moen told the large and growing audience in the Main Lounge of the Iowa Memorial Union on Friday evening, as she and her band performed before the start of the Bernie Sanders rally. “Because it’s a happy night tonight.”
The crowd certainly appeared happy. Largely composed of college-age people and those closer to the age of the 77-year-old senator from Vermont, its numbers continued to swell until the room reached its capacity of 1,300 and organizers had to direct people to an overflow area.
According to the Sanders campaign, a total of 1,800 people came to the IMU to hear Sanders on his first Iowa tour since announcing he was running for president on Feb. 19.
The Friday night rally wasn’t just the largest one in terms of attendance so far this caucus season; it was the first to attract vendors (selling T-shirts, buttons and caps on the sidewalk outside the IMU) and have security workers checking people with metal-detecting wands.
When Sanders finally took the stage, the deafening cheers and applause lasted for more than a minute.
Sanders has seen this kind of enthusiasm in Iowa City before. In the 2016 caucus, he won Johnson County with 59.5 percent of the vote.
“In 2016, this is where the political revolution began,” Sanders told the crowd. “When I first came here to campaign four years ago, not a whole of lot people in Iowa knew who the junior senator from Vermont was, it’s fair to say. And in fact, when we began the campaign we were at 3 percent in the polls. Further, the ideas that we were talking about then were considered by establishment politicians and mainstream media to be radical and extreme ideas. Ideas, they said, nobody in American would support.”
Sanders listed the ideas that were considered “too radical” when he started his 2016 run for president: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour; health care for all as a right; spending $1 trillion on infrastructure repairs and improvements; aggressively combating climate change and making major structural reforms to the criminal justice and immigration systems.
“Those ideas that we talked about here in Iowa four years ago that seemed so radical at that time, well, virtually all those ideas are supported by a majority of the America people,” Sanders said.
He added, “Iowa began the political revolution in 2016, and with your help, [with] this campaign, we are going to complete what we started right here.”
Sanders’ distinctive speaking style was familiar to anyone who saw him in 2016. Hunched over a podium, he slowly and steadily read his speech in his booming Brooklyn-accented voice, gesturing with his right hand to emphasize certain points.
The themes of speech were familiar, too.
We will not stand idly by and allow three families in America — three! — to own more wealth than the bottom half of the American people, while at the same time 20 percent of our children live in poverty, veterans sleep out on the streets and seniors cannot afford the prescription drugs that they need.
We will no longer accept 46 percent of all new income going to the top 1 percent, while millions of people in Vermont, in Iowa and all over this country are forced to work two or three jobs just to pay the bills.
Later in the speech, Sanders emphasized that, in addition to ending “national disparities in terms of wealth and income,” it was important to “address the racial disparities of wealth and income as well. We are going to root out institutional racism wherever it exists.”
It was Sanders who first brought wide attention to the idea of “Medicare for all” in his 2016 campaign, and in his second run for president he is promoting it.
We will no longer continue a dysfunctional health care system, which forces us to pay twice as much per capita as almost any other major country on Earth, while at the same time our life expectancy is going down and our health care outcomes are not as good as other countries.
In addition to creating a single-payer health care system, Sanders has promised that as president he would force pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of prescription medicines.
Sanders also helped popularize in 2016 the idea a minimum wage should be high enough to provide a full-time worker with a decent living standard, and on Friday he noted that five states have raised their minimum wages to $15/hour. He pledged that he’d raise the federal minimum from its current $7.25 to $15 if elected president.
“It is not a radical idea to say that if somebody works 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty,” Sanders told the crowd at IMU. The senator said he would create “a federal jobs guarantee to ensure that every person in this country who is able to work is guaranteed a stable job.”
Sanders also promised to help working families by creating affordable, quality childcare, and making public colleges and universities tuition-free.
“You should not have to mortgage your future for the crime of getting a college education,” Sanders said. As president, he said, he would “substantially lower student debt” for those already with college loans.
Sanders’ plans call for significant changes to how the federal government is operating. He said he favors redirecting part of the funds going to the military.
“We are going to invest in affordable housing, we are going to invest public education and we’re not going to be continuing the kinds of investment we have seen in recent years in nuclear weapons and never-ending wars,” Sanders said.
The senator also proposed ending tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations.
“We will no longer tolerate large, profitable corporations paying zero in federal taxes, stashing their profits and their wealth in the Cayman Islands and in other tax havens,” he said. “The wealthy and large corporations in this country will start paying their fair share of taxes.”
But in order to change how government works, Sanders said it was important to change how elections work. He said he intends to introduce public financing of elections at all levels, and automatic voter registration for all citizens over 18.
Many of the priorities Sanders listed in his hour-long speech — such as “common-sense gun control”; ending the war on drugs; investing in infrastructure and renewable energy; treating climate change as “an existential threat to our country and the planet”; comprehensive immigration reform, including legal protections for DACA recipients and “a humane asylum policy” — wouldn’t be controversial to most Americans.
Another priority, guaranteeing a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices, would only be controversial to certain segments of the population.
“That decision does not belong to the federal government, it does not belong to the state government, it does not belong to the local government,” Sanders said. “It belongs to the women of this country.”
The most radical new policy Sanders introduced in his speech came in the section on reforming the criminal justice system, when he called for the elimination of cash bail.
“There are tonight hundreds of thousands of people in jail in this country,” Sanders said. “You know what their crime is? Their crime is they are too poor to come up with cash bail.”
“This is 2019. We should not be having debtor prisons.”
A practiced campaigner, Sander did tailor part of his remarks especially for his Iowa audience, although by the time he reached that section — about 45 minutes into the speech — the crowd had begun to thin slightly.
“With the federal government not enforcing anti-trust laws,” two corporations control “78 percent of the corn seed market” and four meatpacking companies control “63 percent of the pork market,” Sanders said.
“Meanwhile, instead of protecting family-owned farms, federal support for agriculture is skewed towards large factory farming,” he continued. “The top 10 percent of farms currently get 77 percent of all subsidies.”
Sanders said, “we need policies for rural America that represent the needs of working families and farmers, not agribusiness and multinational corporations.”
Sanders ended his speech with a call for unity, saying “in every state in this country, blue or red, the reality is that working people are struggling to create a decent life for themselves and their families.”
“Brothers and sisters, I want to welcome you to an unprecedented campaign, which intends not only to win this election, but to transform this country.”