By Hank Edson
This is obviously a work of fiction, but knowing what we know, isn’t this how it likely went down?
It’s a rainy January night in Georgetown. The year is 2015. A frumpy, white haired elder in an overcoat, water shedding on his shoes, enters the bistro, steamed glass door closing behind him. There’s a press of people at the receptionist’s stand and he smiles grimly in the wet discomfort of people crowding to be seated. Ornette Coleman is riffing softly from speakers in the ceiling. An enthusiastic hand is offered. He takes it, shakes it, poses for a selfie. As he smiles for the camera, he sees Senator Warren waiting in a booth at the back and excuses himself.
They shake hands. He takes off his coat and slides in on the opposite side raising his eyebrows.
“Looks like it’s really started coming down,” she smiles back. “So, what’s this all about, Bernie?”
Bernie laughs, leaning back into the booth. “What, two friends can’t ever have dinner without an agenda?”
“Is that what we’re doing?”
“Nah,” Bernie smiles and then says with the serious expression that people on Capitol Hill know means business: “We need to talk about you running for president.”
“Are you serious? Bernie, it means the world to me, what you’re saying. But it’s not the right time. When, and if, that time comes, I would love the support you’re expressing.”
“Sometimes, we don’t get to choose when is the right time.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Bernie. You know I wrote a letter encouraging Hillary to run.”
“And you know that Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos increased their wealth by $100 billion each over the last decade while the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25. You can’t tell me you think Hillary, who just made, what, a quarter million dollars giving a thirty minute speech to Goldman Sachs, is going to change that.”
“Nonetheless, Hillary is running.”
“And yet there’s a massive, enthusiastic, mobilized group called ‘Ready for Warren’.”
“Well, they may be ready for me, but they’re not ready to defeat the Clinton machine. Not to mention that there are a lot more other people who are not ready for a woman president, period. It’ll take a lot more than ‘Ready for Warren.’”
“If that’s true, Elizabeth, why’d you ask Hillary to run? Seriously, Elizabeth. You’ve got, no exaggeration, millions of people who will be ecstatic if you announce. The country is clamoring for someone to fix our broken system. You say the same thing every time you speak in public.”
Elizabeth smiled and looked up at a painting hanging over Bernie’s head. “Bernie, here’s the thing: Before a woman will ever be president, someone has to go first and lose.”
“Plus,” she went on, “I am not going up against the Clintons. They don’t take prisoners. They bury bodies. I’m not going to risk my one shot in a race against someone ruthless enough to try to end my career. Let Hillary have her shot. She’s not going to win though she’s sure she will. It’s the quickest way forward.”
Bernie shook his head grimly, no smile this time. “Elizabeth, your analysis is all wrong. You’re making a big mistake. Now is the time. There’s real opportunity here because there is an absolute need. Yes, I do think its an important goal, a worthy one, to get a woman in the president’s chair, but as important as that goal is, there’s an opportunity here to do something far more important for women and for all people, which is we critically need to fix our corrupt political process and take action to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”
“That’s not an opportunity; that something we’re going to have to live with. Bernie, a woman won’t win the presidency, not in 2016.”
“You’re looking at this very differently than I do. It’s not about what voters will do; it’s about what this moment demands a candidate must do. History is serving you up an opportunity to lead, not play political games. You could be the next FDR, you could have the stature of Lincoln. You could be a Founding Mother of Democracy 2.0.”
“Bernie, I know you’ve made being an independent work for you in Vermont, but that kind of talk isn’t realistic on a nationwide scale. I love the sentiment, I do. But — ”
“Elizabeth, seriously, can we talk as friends, philosophically? Can we agree that there truly is a fundamental difference between Leadership with a capital “L” and political game playing? Don’t you think there are times in life that call for a choice, that demand we take the risk and Lead with a capital L? If now is not the time to Lead, with our corrupt, crippled process that can’t pass wildly popular gun control or enduring, comprehensive health care, when will it ever be? With our unprecedented concentration of wealth and an increasingly dire climate crisis, both of which get exponentially worse every year, we can’t afford to let four more years pass by without real Leadership.”
Elizabeth regarded Bernie seriously then softened her look ever so slightly, “That’s pretty condescending, don’t you think?” Then she taunted him with a laugh, “Why don’t you run, if Leadership with a capital L is so imperative? FDR, Lincoln, Washington, you well know, all had their strategies and played their careful games. That’s the nature of the beast.”
“No, I disagree. Their greatness was all due to the times they set aside those games and took risks to Lead. And they did so because they had no choice. Their time demanded it, like our does now. But it’s not all about what’s at risk. You’re not seeing the opportunity, Elizabeth. You know the word for crisis in Japanese means danger and opportunity — Well, we have multiple crises right now, that demand courage in the face of danger. But these same crises are offering an amazing, historic opportunity to you, out of all people in our country, I really believe, more than anyone else. You should take it! People have to make history, not play it. If you get out there determined to make change happen, I will do everything in my power to support you.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “I can’t stake my political career on a Facebook meme about Japanese kanjis.”
“It’s much more than a Facebook meme. There is a groundswell out there of millions of people who are yearning, depressed, aggrieved, desperate, hurting, struggling. They see the planet in crisis. They see their government brazenly usurped. They work harder and harder and struggle more and more while a few — I’m reading your stump speech back to you; are you really denying the power this crisis offers a genuine Leader? The largest portion of the population is not Democrat or Republican, but disaffected Independents, 43% of the electorate — millions of people wanting real Leadership, sick to death of Washington games. And that’s not even counting the 25% of voters on the left. It’s not counting the progressive movement that’s growing larger every year and that includes organizations like “Ready for Warren.” Tell me this, if I did test the waters and do what you suggest, answer the call for Leadership because you won’t, would you do for me what I’m wanting to do for you?”
“You mean, support you?”
“Yes. I mean, do everything you can to help me win.”
“Bernie, I already told you, I’m not jeopardizing my chance at the presidency by going up against Clinton. If I won’t do it as a candidate, I’m also not going to do it by endorsing a different candidate. I can’t. I’m sorry. I’m on your side. I want to fix the system like you. But you’re not being realistic.”
“Again, I really mean it, I think your analysis is all wrong. Consider this: If I run, if I push the issue, and offer a real alternative to Hilary Clinton’s five SuperPACs and her pre-purchased superdelegates and her money laundering foundation and her Wall Street speeches, what do you think will happen to your presidential hopes then? Because I think someone has got to lead. I cannot stand by and hand over to my grandchildren a climate crisis I let simmer for four more years because the time was not right. I can’t let the oligarchy drain the people of another five hundred billion dollars over the next four years, I can’t let them have four more years to privatize our natural resources, wage wars of aggression to capture those resources, and seize further control over our political process. But you should think through what it would mean for you, who are the logical champion of this movement, if you choose to sit on the sidelines and another person comes forward to lead it.”
“I’ll tell you this, Elizabeth,” Bernie went on. “You think you can’t win in 2016. I don’t think you can win if you don’t run in 2016. I don’t mean this as a judgment against you, I’m talking principles here. In order to win the Independents and the Left, I think you need honesty, integrity, good judgment, a platform that serves the people instead of the one percent, and Leadership. I think this is your moment, but if you let it pass by and someone else has to take it, you will never again be viewed by the Independents and the Left as being an honest champion of the values you have been advocating, not if you don’t endorse the person who steps forward in your place. They will see you as putting your ambition ahead of the needs of the country in a time of crisis. They will see you as lacking the judgment of true Leadership to know the moment when action is required.”
Bernie paused to let her reply, but as she did not speak he plowed forward with what he had to say, “Your rhetoric has rightfully earned you a huge following, but it also comes with a responsibility that the public will hold you accountable to live up to. If you let this moment pass by, Elizabeth, I think it will be a terrible mistake, a terrible waste of an opportunity to have a woman elected president. Come 2020, if you don’t pick up the gauntlet in 2016 and someone else has to, you will be plagued with criticisms that will be hard to answer that you can’t be a true progressive if you couldn’t distinguish between the corruption of Hillary’s five SuperPACs and a campaign that offers a true alternative. If you sit out your chance and then also sit on the fence in 2016 when I or someone else offers a progressive candidacy, I think that criticism will cripple any chance you might have in 2020. People will accuse you of a core dishonesty.”
“That’s a pretty harsh assessment, Bernie,” Elizabeth countered sternly.
“History can be harsh,” Bernie sighed. “I’m not saying it because I share this judgment. I’m saying it as a friend because I believe in your capacity to offer leadership we badly need and I don’t want you to make a mistake you’ll regret by failing to recognize the importance of this moment. I really think this is your moment if you want it, but I don’t know that history will let you put it off four more years.”
Elizabeth sat silent shaking her head. “What do you mean by an alternative campaign, anyway?” She scoffed, “What alternative is there?”
“Well, to begin with, if I were running, I’d refuse to accept SuperPAC funding. I’d develop an online operation that would collect small donations from all the millions of people who despise our corrupt government and want meaningful change. That would immediately begin to reform our process. It would give the people a choice: Do you want to vote for someone who says they want money out of politics, but is in bed with big corporations, or do you want to vote for someone who actually does not have money in her politics?”
Elizabeth chuckled, “Bernie, I’ll give you this: You are one of a kind. But you can’t expect anyone in the Democratic Party to get behind that idea.”
Four years later, Senator Warren announced that her campaign for the Presidency would not accept SuperPAC funding, as did many of the other Democratic Party candidates, though none of them acknowledged Senator Sanders’ historic Leadership in demonstrating that such a campaign could succeed. Nor did they acknowledge the extent to which their respective platforms held planks taken from Senator Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns or the extent to which the entire national political debate had, during the last four years, been pulled toward serving the interests of the people thanks to Senator Sanders’ Leadership.
When Senator Warren’s campaign began to falter before the first 2020 primary had even been held, she began resorting to identity politics aimed at smearing Senator Sanders. Among these strategies, she claimed that Bernie told her that a woman couldn’t be elected in 2020, tellingly conflating out of her own slippery relationship with the truth her own negative feelings about the bias against women in politics and Bernie’s assessment, not that a woman couldn’t be elected in 2020, but that a dishonest candidate couldn’t be elected in 2020.
Although the corporate media did its best to protect Senator Warren from being required to explain how she could claim to be a progressive leader when in 2016 she saw no distinction worth making between Hillary Clinton’s unprecedented five SuperPACs and Bernie’s small-donor-funded campaign, this effort was to no avail. Senator Warren’s reputation among the voting public was permanently damaged for her decision not to take a stand in 2016 for the progressive politics her 2020 campaign later sought to represent. All through the 2020 campaign, Senator Warren skillfully avoided having to explain her choices in 2016 to the people whose votes she asked for. In this artful avoidance, the public perception of a core dishonesty was confirmed.
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