Bernie Sanders leaped back onto the campaign trail Saturday with a rowdy political rally aimed at reassuring supporters unnerved by the 78-year-old’s recent heart attack — and with a lot of encouragement from an unexpected place.
The candidate competing with Sanders to lock down the Democratic Party’s most progressive voters, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, is eager for the Vermont senator to continue his pursuit of the presidency. The prominence of their shared agenda in this race is amplified, officials from both campaigns say, by them being in it together for the distance.
Saturday’s event, with a crowd estimated by the Sanders campaign at over 25,000 people, suggested they will. Sanders exhibited a burst of resilience before the large crowd at a waterfront park in Queens’ Long Island City, unleashing on the rich, corporations and establishment Democrats in an hourlong speech. He strode on stage in a blazer and sweater on the crisp fall afternoon following full-throated endorsements from some of the most sought-after progressives in Congress, and on the heels of a fundraising quarter that surpassed even the impressive numbers Warren posted.
“I am more than ready to take on the greed and corruption of the corporate elite and the apologists,” Sanders said after thanking supporters for their good wishes amid his health scare. “I am more ready than ever to help create a government based on the principles of justice: economic justice, racial justice, social justice and environmental justice. To put it bluntly: I am back.”
The crowd erupted into chants of “Bernie’s back.”
“There is no question that I and my family have faced adversity over these last couple of weeks,” Sanders said. “But the untold story is that people everywhere in this country, in the wealthiest nation in the history of this world, are facing their own adversities.”
Sanders was joined by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old progressive crusader whose endorsement was feverishly pursued by both him and Warren. Sanders also notched the support of Ocasio-Cortez ally Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali immigrant and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. The support injected a dose of vibrancy and multiculturalism into the septuagenarian’s movement.
“The only reason I had any hope in launching a longshot campaign for Congress is because Bernie Sanders proved you can run a grassroots campaign and win in an America where we almost thought it was impossible,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Even with the surge of momentum, the senator still faces a tough path ahead. It is unclear how far the vitality he exhibited here in New York and in Ohio at Tuesday’s Democratic debate — his other major public appearance since checking out of the hospital — will go in reassuring uneasy primary voters. Candidates in past races have seen their presidential aspirations sunk by such medical incidents.
In a YouGov poll conducted a few days before the Ohio debate, only 19% of voters and 26% of Democrats said they believed Sanders is in good enough physical condition to serve effectively as president for four years. Twice as many voters said the 76-year-old Biden was in good enough health, and three times as many expressed confidence in 70-year-old Warren’s health.
As former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley found after he was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat during a 2000 presidential bid, managing voter perceptions of a health problem can be a bigger challenge than managing the health problem itself. The bout of pneumonia that briefly drove Hillary Clinton off the campaign trail in fall 2016 fed into conspiracy theories amplified by Donald Trump that she was beset with chronic health problems.
Most Sanders supporters interviewed at the rally said they were not overly concerned about his health, but several added that they worry it will make it harder to draw others to vote for him.
And what do they think about Warren? “I wouldn’t feel the frustration voting for her that I did when I had to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016,” said Bridget Catania, a 23-year-old artist at the rally, reflecting the attitude of most rallygoers interviewed.
Sanders supporters who were interviewed emphasized — as did filmmaker Michael Moore and Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner, who took the stage before Sanders — that it was Sanders who transformed Democratic politics by drawing masses of voters to the progressive agenda in 2016, when it initially was written off.
“When I say there is no one like Bernard Sanders, I mean that,” Turner said. “We’ve got some people in the mainstream and neoliberal media who really can’t see the difference.”
As Sanders moves to regain his footing, he has watched Warren leapfrog past him in the race. She has become the candidate of choice for many voters focused on “Medicare for all,” free public college and taxing the super-rich.
Yet neither Sanders nor Warren are eager to crowd the other out of the race. They deliberately avoid taking shots at one another, or even taking steps to contrast their differences. Progressive activists say the alignment has made them both more potent candidates.
“People are talking about Medicare for all; they are talking about student debt relief, talking about a Green New Deal, because those policies are supported by two strong candidates,” said Adriel Hampton, a Bay Area consultant to progressives who supports Sanders. “Warren and Sanders combined are as strong a force as all the moderate candidates.”
Such progressive dominance at presidential debates and in the broader primary race “is something we have not seen in my lifetime in presidential politics,” said Hampton, 41.
As Warren takes fire from candidates eager to knock her off the front-runner perch, Sanders has become a reliable and effective defender of hers. He has no reservations about excoriating their mutual Democratic nemesis, former Vice President Joe Biden. That benefits Warren without tarnishing the image she aims to project as a unifier.
When Biden suggested at the debate that the progressives are all talk and only he has gotten big things done, Sanders pilloried some of the things Biden has loomed large in getting done: a U.S. invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, a bankruptcy bill that burdened Americans financially, trade agreements that enabled the offshoring of union jobs.
A Sanders fundraising email Friday was devoted entirely to charging Biden with acting as a tool of the health insurance industry.
But the Sanders-Warren alliance works both ways. Concerns that Sanders is threatened with being eclipsed in the race by the Massachusetts senator are cast aside, as the campaign views her as a much less significant impediment than Biden.
“The Warren coalition is different than ours,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), a Sanders campaign chair. He argues Warren is not so much cannibalizing the Sanders coalition as picking off supporters from candidates like California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“It has been a benefit to have both Bernie and Warren on the stage,” Khanna said. “Together, they have fundamentally redefined the Democratic Party and vindicated the progressive movement.”