WASHINGTON — An odd thing happened in the middle of a Bernie Sanders national TV interview this week: He began to sound a little bit tired of his own revolution.
“Let’s go easy on the ‘political revolution,’ you know?” the Vermont senator and democratic socialist said to the disbelieving “60 Minutes” interviewer, Anderson Cooper, who immediately pointed out that the words were Sanders’ own, blanketing his fund-raising e-mails and shouted from the podium of his rallies.
“But I don't want people, you know, to overstate that,” Sanders replied.
On the cusp of Super Tuesday contests next week that could put Sanders on a fast-moving path to the Democratic presidential nomination, he has begun toning down his rhetoric a bit, distancing himself from his own calls for “revolution” and serving up a more suburban-friendly twist to his sweeping policy platform while highlighting more of his biography.
Since winning Nevada in a landslide last week, Sanders has touted his record working with Republican senators on veterans and foreign policy issues, updated his website to finally begin to explain how he would pay for his expansive agenda, and insisted in a speech to a group of party leaders in South Carolina that his agenda is not, in fact, radical — and that he could defeat President Trump with it.
That blink-and-you-might-miss-it shift in tone comes as his rivals darkly warn that Sanders holds beyond-the-pale beliefs that will drag down other Democratic candidates should he be the nominee, bash him for his past praise of Cuba’s domestic programs under Fidel Castro, and accuse him of wanting to disrupt the economy with trillions of dollars in new spending. These are fears Sanders likely must vanquish in order to win the nomination.
“I think he’s very well aware that the word ‘socialism,’ the word ‘revolution’ may make some people nervous — especially Democrats who are more moderate,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist who advised Hillary Clinton during her 2016 run. “He’s obviously not going to all of a sudden wake up one day and say, ‘You know what? Forget Medicare for All.’ But he is softening his rhetoric a little bit.”
The shift reflects the reality that the unyielding progressivism that catapulted Sanders to the top of a split presidential field may not be enough to win over the rest of the party. But it remains to be seen whether a man who amassed support in part by being so unchanging, whose supporters proudly pass around 30-year-old videos in which he sounds exactly the same as today, can make a political pivot — even if he needs to.
Representative Ro Khanna of California, a cochair of Sanders’ campaign, said he believes the senator has been able to gain support in the primary by channeling the “righteous anger” that many people feel at a system that’s left them behind. But soon, Sanders will enter a new phase of the race, which will come with a new, slightly more business-friendly tone, he said.
“As we move to him consolidating support for the nomination and beating Donald Trump, I think he’ll point out that the very same policies that have a moral dimension also have an economic dimension, and that these policies will be good for our economic future,” Khanna said.
“He believes in free markets,” he added. “He understands that 85 percent of jobs in this country are private-sector jobs.”
In fact, at a CNN town hall this week, Sanders assured a voter that Medicare for All would not be “government-run" health care, and that doctors and nurses would not be employed by the government. “As you know, under Medicare, you go to any doctor you want, it’s not government-run,” he said.
Representative Peter Welch of Vermont, who supports Sanders and has known him for decades, said the candidate also recognizes the need to reach out to the rest of the party if he becomes the nominee.
“A lot of his tone has been quite critical of the so-called Democratic establishment,” Welch said. “But at a certain point, he’s got an opportunity to show respect to the voters who supported some of his opponents.”
Welch said he believes this would be “easy” for Sanders to do, because many of his rivals are relatively close to him on his agenda — including universal health care, free public college, and raising the minimum wage.
On the campaign trail recently, Sanders also has trotted out more of his personal background than usual, telling crowds about his father’s immigration story and reminiscing about growing up in a rent-controlled apartment. “My father came to this country at the age of 17, he didn’t have a nickel in his pocket,” Sanders said at a rally in El Paso last weekend. “He didn’t know a word of English.” An ad he is airing in South Carolina this week mentions his family background before anything else.
“My wife and I sat and watched ‘60 Minutes’ and I looked over at her and said, ‘Oh my God, he’s actually telling a little bit about his story,’” said Mark Longabaugh, a former Sanders adviser who has long pushed for the intensely private candidate to open up more about his personal life on the trail.
Some may doubt Sanders’ ability to change his stripes, but those who know him point out that he’s a skilled politician who has adapted to serve different constituencies over his lengthy career. His Democratic rivals, for example, have been slamming him for votes he made against gun safety bills going back to his time in the House, when he was attempting to keep his rural Vermont constituency happy. And as mayor of Burlington in the early 1980s, Sanders was able to wield more power as an executive by skillfully booting out other city officials hostile to his tenure.
“Bernie Sanders has been running for office consistently since the 1980s, OK?” said Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “He’s a politician.”
The senator is more adaptable to political reality than people realize, Longabaugh said, pointing out that he’s been able to work with his colleagues in the Senate despite not officially belonging to either party.
“He has always been caricaturized as more inflexible than he is,” he said.
Sanders has another advantage when it comes to attempting to make himself palatable to a general electorate — a loyal base of supporters who will likely continue to trust him even if he needs to makes some appeals to the center.
“Bernie has a long leash with his followers,” Sabato said.
But even if Sanders performs well on Super Tuesday, he faces a Democratic leadership that is not inclined to simply hand him the nomination if he does not amass a majority of the delegates, foreshadowing a political battle at the convention that would likely reignite the combative streak of Sanders and his supporters — and deepen the divides in the party.
In Nevada, Sanders joked that some people were getting “nervous” about his ascendancy, riffing on one of his favorite broadsides against the “establishment” of both parties.
“But you know what? When we stand up together, they ain’t going to stop us,” he said to a roaring crowd—sounding decidedly more revolutionary than he did in the “60 Minutes” interview.
Jazmine Ulloa of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.