Bernie versus the Democratic Party

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in New York, March 2, 2019. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

This time, the Democrats might not win

Hollywood is filled with remakes and reboots. Washington is about to get one of its own. The re-launched property: the 2016 campaign.

You know the plot. An outsider with grassroots support leads a crusade against the party establishment and the legitimating institutions that bestow credibility upon a candidate. He’s old, white, been around for a while, says some things that are outside the mainstream, and has a fickle relationship to his party. But he possesses a strange charisma, dominates the conversation, and is willing to speak to audiences outside the typical party coalition.

The novelty in this retelling of 2016: Our outsider is fighting the Democratic Party, not the GOP. The original version starred Donald Trump. The update features Bernie Sanders.

I still have the scars from Trump’s march through the institutions of the right. One by one, he took on and defeated the power brokers of the American conservative movement and Republican Party. He turned his “pledge” to support the nominee into a political coup, the beginning of his takeover of the Republican National Committee. He challenged the authority of conservative media critical of him, including such important brands as Fox News Channel and National Review. Burned by the right’s foreign policy hands and economists, he got by with a ragtag crew of wonks, intellectuals, and journalists. What money he raised came from small-dollar contributions.

Trump shook the Republican Party to its foundations. He forced it to recognize his power, drawn not from Beltway credentials but from the Republican voter base. It was not that Trump remained unchanged. Beginning in 2011, he adopted core Republican positions such as support for the right to life, for the Second Amendment, for supply-side tax cuts, and for constitutionalist judges on the bench. Once in power he listened and sometimes deferred to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. But the GOP changed more. It is no longer the party it was before Donald Trump. Never will be.

It might now be the Democratic Party’s time in the barrel. Among the Democrats who are declared presidential candidates, Sanders is in the lead. And he’s not a Democrat. Sanders is second only to Biden, who hasn’t announced his intentions. In one poll, Sanders is ahead of the former vice president. He leads the money race. Like Trump, his support comes from donations under $200. That’s not only a sign of appeal outside the major cities. It means Sanders has room to grow because the overwhelming majority of his donors have not given the maximum contribution.

Just as Trump did beginning in 2015, Sanders has established the ground of intra-party debate. Trump turned the 2016 Republican primary into a referendum on immigration, trade, and foreign policy. He came out ahead. Sanders has defined the parameters of the 2020 Democratic primary through his advocacy of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and much higher taxes on upper incomes. The antithesis of Trump’s nationalism is Sanders’s socialism. And socialism is hot right now thanks to Millennials and to Sanders’s Mini-Mes: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.

The discourse surrounding Bernie Sanders’s campaign has a familiar ring. “‘Stop Sanders’ Democrats Are Agonizing Over His Momentum,” read a headline in The New York Times this week. Where have I heard that before? “From canapé-filled fund-raisers on the coasts to the cloakrooms of Washington,” reports Jonathan Martin, “mainstream Democrats are increasingly worried that their effort to defeat President Trump in 2020 could be complicated by Mr. Sanders, in a political scenario all too reminiscent of how Mr. Trump himself seized the Republican nomination in 2016.”

Actually, at the moment, Sanders is in a better position than Trump was in July 2015. Sanders is viewed favorably by 74 percent of Democrats, according to the Morning Consult poll. When he started his campaign, Trump’s rating among Republicans was 57 percent. It rose to 66 percent by the time he won the nomination. Sanders is more popular among Democrats at the outset of his campaign than Trump was among Republicans at the end.

The revelation that he is now “a millionayah” seems to have done Sanders little harm. He deflected accusations of hypocrisy at this week’s Fox News town hall. His appearance on Fox was itself noteworthy. He demonstrated a willingness to appear on platforms associated with the other side of the political debate. Trump, you will remember, talked to everybody. It was one way he displayed fearlessness and a capacity to lead.

As Democrats have become aware of Sanders’s viability, they have reacted predictably. They have criticized his policies from the Times op-ed page and from New York blogs. The verbal barrage doesn’t leave a mark. The activist arm of the Center for American Progress (CAP), the most influential progressive think tank, released a video highlighting the way Bernie’s description of wealth has changed as he’s accumulated more of it. Bernie, like Trump, responded in full force. CAP, funded by major corporations and foreign governments, and whose former staff hold important positions within Sanders’s campaign, backed off. Bernie won.

It gets worse for the Democratic establishment. The Times followed up the kerfuffle with a profile of CAP’s leader, Hillary Clinton whisperer Neera Tanden, which might be one of the most devastating hits I’ve read. And I know my hits. The piece opens with an anecdote where Tanden admits to pushing Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, when he worked for her. The copy is laced with quotations from Tanden’s mother that reinforce the impression that CAP’s president will not rest until Sanders is denied the Democratic nomination. “She says Sanders got a pass,” Mama Tanden said, “but he’s not getting a pass this time.”

Perhaps not, but I’d rate the Democrats’ chances of stopping Bernie higher if Tanden and her friends hadn’t responded to the Times piece by attacking it on Twitter as gotcha journalism. How dare they interview the mother of a subject of a profile piece! No one ever does—oh wait, that’s literally what every profile writer does. And what is Tanden afraid of? Everything her mom said is accurate. Her problem isn’t with the content of the quotes. It’s the fact that they were made public.

The CAP-Tanden episode is trivial. It is also revealing. Democratic elites are in the beginning stages of the same crisis that faced their Republican counterparts four years ago. What do you do when the voters of your party are set against you? How deep does influence really run?

The Democrats may have a way out. Recent polls suggesting their party regulars are not socialist diehards has given them comfort. And there is always identity politics. Sanders’s old-left message of economic security for all is vulnerable to attack from identity groups demanding recognition and entitlements for their particular constituencies. Coalition management is a game Clinton played beautifully—she had policies for every part of the Democratic rainbow. Bernie has big plans for all of us.

And it would be foolish to underestimate him. The last seven days will be remembered as the week Washington D.C. realized Bernie might win. And began to understand that we have no idea what to do about it.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Free Beacon.

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