As he prepares to return to the 2020 campaign trail, Bernie Sanders is delivering a more personal and more focused message than at any time since he stepped onto the national stage in the spring of 2015. In a seven-minute video released Thursday morning by his campaign, the Vermont senator spoke poignantly about lying in his hospital bed last week and the emotions he felt after experiencing a heart attack—but he also did something more. Sanders signaled that he is prepared to run a race that frankly discusses his hospitalization, and that explains why he has chosen to keep campaigning at a point when pundits and political strategists are busy trying to write him out of the 2020 race.
The deliberate and philosophical statement, which the senator addressed to supporters, framed his campaign going forward as a bid that will be different from his 2016 run against Hillary Clinton or the 2020 campaign he had been pursuing at a feverish pace before he left the trail to undergo an emergency procedure to address a blocked artery. While some Sanders backers have tried to jump beyond or around the news that a 78-year-old candidate had to suspend his campaign and be treated for a heart attack, the senator is not avoiding the topic. Rather, he is pulling everything together, incorporating the news of what he’s just been through into a necessarily serious discussion of what he seeks to achieve now.
Looking straight into the camera, Sanders said:
Let me relay to you just kind of an experience that I had lying in a hospital bed after the heart attack. I thought about a lot of things, needless to say, but one of the things that just went through my brain is: What would have happened if I did not have the good health insurance that I have? What happens if somebody had no health insurance, who felt a pain in his or her chest? Or felt really sick? And said to themselves: Do I really want to go to the doctor, or the hospital, because I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the medical bills that I am going to incur? How many people are in that position? How many people have died because they don’t get to the hospital or the doctor when they should? And it made me feel even more strongly the need for us to continue our efforts to end this dysfunctional and cruel health care system, which leaves so many people uninsured, underinsured, causes bankruptcy, lowers credit scores for people who owe medical debt. It is an insane, wasteful, bureaucratic system based on the greed of the health care industry.
So I got to tell you, that even as I sat and lied down in that hospital bed in Las Vegas, this issue of the struggle that we are engaged in just, you know, permeated my mind. And I want all of you to understand that the day is going to come 20 years from now, 30 years from now, you’re going to be talking to your kids, you’re going to be talking to your grandchildren, and looking back and saying, “You know what, I was involved in that struggle that finally brought health care to all Americans as a human right.” That’s what we are trying to do. So be proud of the efforts that we’re making. Understand the enormous opposition that we’re facing from the drug companies and the insurance companies. We are going to win this struggle. History is on our side.
That’s an inspiring message for the most ardent supporters of the senator and his bid to achieve Medicare for All health care reform. The question now is whether it will reach the progressive voters who respect Sanders, who may even have voted for him in 2016, but who this time around are considering other candidates, including a front-running contender who has positioned herself as an ally on many key issues, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and others such as former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, who heaped praise on Sanders while presenting themselves as next-gen prospects. Sanders is going forward, as any contender must in a crowded field, with a message that suggests his is a distinct candidacy that holds out the prospect of history-making change and transformation. At the same time, he is seeking to make a connection with voters who have themselves suffered unexpected setbacks and challenges.
Speaking calmly, in the cadence he uses when he is not rallying thousands of supporters in Iowa or New Hampshire but instead trying to make a point in a one-on-one conversation, Sanders said in the video, “Yeah, I’ve had a rough week. I’ve suffered adversity and that’s true and I don’t wish anybody to have a heart attack and get scared the way that our family did. But let me tell you, as you all know, I’m not the only person in America dealing with adversity. A lot of people [are] dealing with a lot more pain than I am.”
He spoke of people without homes, a mother in Iowa who is raising three kids while making just $10 an hour, young people weighed down with student debt. He spoke of a duty to keep raising fundamental issues that are too rarely discussed in “a Congress which is largely owned by campaign contributors” and “the corporate media, who try to deflect attention away from many of these enormously important issues.” He acknowledged that “it’s not easy” to wage a campaign that is “taking on everybody…Trump and the Republican establishment…the Democratic establishment…Wall Street and the insurance companies and the drug companies, fossil-fuel industry, military-industrial complex, prison-industrial complex, the corporate media that so often refuses to deal with the real issues facing this country…”
Throughout the video, Sanders used precise and knowing language to link his own recent experience with the themes of his campaign. This language was more genuine than is usually heard in American politics; it aimed to achieve a complex connection with voters that is at once emotional and intellectual.
“But at the end of the day,” Sanders said toward the close of the video, “if you’re going to look at yourself in the mirror and you’re going to say, ‘Look, I go around once. I have one life to live, what role do I want to play?’ It speaks to the need to create the kind of country that we can become, where people are working hard to serve each other—to understand each other. That is the country we can become—we really can. But we have to have the courage to take on some enormously powerful special interests.”