Harry Jaffe is editor-at-large of the Washingtonian and author of the new unauthorized biography Why Bernie Sanders Matters (and also co-author of Dream City). Jaffe first met Sanders when he was reporting for a paper in Rutland, Vt., way back in 1976. He corresponded with the Washington Examiner on Monday, Presidents' Day. He talked about Sanders' improbable past, his current attractiveness to Democrats and whether or not he might one day wind up on Mount Rushmore.
WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Why was Bernie Sanders so uncooperative in the writing of your book?
JAFFE: Sanders has no interest in delving into the details of his life, whether it's how he became a radical, how he created the Bernie Brand in Vermont, or why he has not made deep connections in Washington, D.C.
He's rarely invited reporters into his confidence. He doesn't trust journalists. Moreover, he doesn't have the time to talk about himself for hours — or minutes. It takes away from the important work of changing the world.
EXAMINER: When you wrote Why Bernie Sanders Matters, did you think he'd be anywhere near as successful as he's been in the Democratic primaries thus far?
JAFFE: No. I was among the Washington chattering classes that figured he would force the other candidates to the left, especially Hillary Clinton, but I didn't forecast this level of popularity. However, once he started drawing yuuuge crowds in July and August, I re-calibrated, connected the dots to the reporting in my biography and realized he had staying power.
EXAMINER: Could you speculate why Sanders has gotten such traction in the primaries?
JAFFE: Plenty of Democrats, especially young ones, are angry about Citizens United and the 1 percent of the super wealthy. When Sanders says student debt is too high, he's appealing to voters who are paying back loans at 6 percent when money is cheaper for many others. Members of the American Middle Class are, in fact, working two jobs and barely hanging on.
Sanders gives their anger a target: the oligarchy! And he gives them hope: universal health care!
Plus, he's raising money and spending it well; plus, he's assembled a great political and digital team.
EXAMINER: Sanders sounds very old school Brooklyn, yet he's a senator from Vermont. How did he end up there?
JAFFE: After graduating from the University of Chicago, Sanders was a wandering soul. He was a member of the counter culture, with no particular goals. He joined the migration of hippies to Vermont in search of a different, more communal lifestyle.
EXAMINER: How did he get into politics?
JAFFE: On a whim in 1971, he wandered into an organizational meeting of the Liberty Union Party, recently formed as a third party to protest the Vietnam War and promote leftist politics. The party asked for a volunteer to run in a special election for the U.S. Senate. Sanders raised his hand, explained his political stands and got the nod. He ran four times for statewide office, never reached double digits, but started to build a bit of name recognition.
EXAMINER: What kind of a mayor was Sanders, and what would that augur for a Sanders presidency?
JAFFE: Sanders ran against an entrenched establishment, starting with little knowledge of Burlington's politics or any experience running anything, let alone a city government. But he hired smart assistants, balanced the books, tended to constituent needs and ran the city efficiently. He expanded services to the poor, didn't raise taxes but increased business fees. After winning his first race by 10 votes in 1981, he won three more and left to pursue higher office.
Does Sanders' success running a small city of 40,000 in the bucolic landscape of Vermont's Lake Champlain shoreline give us any sense of a how Sanders would operate as president? Sure, in that Sanders was smart enough to attract good people and keep his constituents happy. And yes, we can see that he was able to execute a few simple programs in a small town. But a mayor is not a governor. It's hard for me to see him making a smooth leap from running a city 30 years ago to managing a nation with a military budget, a foreign policy and a fractious legislature.
EXAMINER: Sanders is known as a conviction politician but he has also been a successful one. What were Sanders' most obvious political votes?
JAFFE: Sanders' votes for both the Brady Bill and the gun manufacturers protection legislation were designed to protect his standing with gun owners in Vermont, in opposition to his stated convictions. But they also inoculated him against charges that he's against the Second Amendment. They were practical votes that allow him to play both sides.