Administration

The Memo: Sanders’s influence endures as campaign ends

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ended his second and likely final run for the presidency on Wednesday, acknowledging that a “feasible” path to the Democratic nomination was “just not there.”

But Sanders’s failure to claim the big prize shouldn’t blind anyone to his achievements.

It is almost exactly five years since Sanders announced his first presidential run. 

In that time, his ideas have gone mainstream, he has inspired a new generation of young progressives and he has revitalized the left as a force within the Democratic Party.

“I think what he has done is of incredible significance,” said Tad Devine, who worked as a senior adviser to Sanders’s 2016 campaign.

Sanders has become such a mainstay of American life — appearing on talk shows and being impersonated on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” — that it is easy to forget how marginal a figure he appeared when he launched his first bid for the presidency in April 2015.

The New York Times report on his announcement appeared on page 21 of its print edition and noted that “Mr. Sanders’s bid is considered a long-shot.” The Washington Post used the same phrase and reported that the Vermont senator had “denied that he was in the race merely to draw attention to issues he cares about.”

Sanders went on to win more than 13 million votes and 23 contests in 2016, giving eventual nominee Hillary Clinton a far closer race than most people predicted.

Sanders’s confidence at the outset of his 2016 bid — “I think people should be a little bit careful underestimating me,” he told the Times — has been borne out in areas of policy as well as politics. The Democratic Party has moved toward his positions on issues including “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college, climate change and a $15 per hour national minimum wage.

On health care, Sanders was trusted by more Democratic voters than any other candidate, according to a November poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, even though the position he advocates is considerably more expansive than the Affordable Care Act.

“It was not long ago that people considered these ideas radical and fringe,” Sanders said in the livestream on which he announced the suspension of his campaign on Wednesday.

Sanders has had disappointments and shortcomings for sure. 

He appeared to be on the brink of winning the nomination on Feb. 22, when he won the Nevada caucuses. At that stage, he had won two of the first three contests and came within a hair’s breadth in the third. 

But former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory in the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary changed the race with dizzying speed. Other moderates dropped out, Biden performed strongly on Super Tuesday and Sanders lost altitude rapidly.

The failure of Sanders’s second presidential bid was inextricably tied to his difficulty in winning the support of black Democrats, who voted for Biden in overwhelming numbers. 

More broadly, Sanders never put to rest concerns about his electability in a general election. Nervousness about a self-declared democratic socialist who was prone to saying positive things about figures like the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro persisted far beyond the party establishment. 

There are, too, those who complain that Sanders and his supporters are more concerned with winning internal ideological arguments than building the kinds of coalitions that can prevail in national elections. 

But the movement of the Democratic Party toward Sanders over the past five years is undoubtedly real, and the viewpoint he represents has found new respect.

Biden, responding to his rival’s withdrawal, issued a lengthy statement Wednesday paying tribute to Sanders and stating, “I will be reaching out to you. You will be heard by me.”

Biden added, “To your supporters, I make the same commitment: I see you, I hear you and I understand the urgency of what it is we have to get done in this country.”

On the left, the tributes were even more extravagant. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who clashed with Sanders during the campaign, said that his candidacy had “charted a path … that will change the course of our county and party.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who endorsed and campaigned with Sanders, praised him for “fighting hard, lonely fights in true devotion to a people’s movement in the United States.”

Ocasio-Cortez, now one of the highest-wattage political stars on the left, worked as a volunteer organizer for the Sanders campaign in 2016, long before she came to national prominence.

Movement veterans note that Sanders’s influence isn’t measured just by the mentees like Ocasio-Cortez who have become political stars, but in the many thousands of people he has drawn into activism and the political process.

“Bernie’s worldview has been adopted by so many voters including people who might not usually consider themselves Democrats — and certainly generationally,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist who supported Sanders. 

Tasini also asserted that Sanders had been able to bring progressive goals closer — even if they have not yet been fully realized —“partly because he did bring a lot more young people into this movement.” 

Sanders, who is 78 and had a heart attack in the fall, seems highly unlikely to submit to the rigors of a presidential campaign again.

But the stark statistical record — two campaigns and two losses — doesn’t come close to capturing his significance.

“I really believe he’s completely transformed the Democratic Party,” said Bill Press, the progressive commentator who was among a small group of people who first personally encouraged Sanders to run in 2016.

“The Democratic Party today is Bernie’s party,” added Press, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “The party agenda is Bernie’s agenda. The issues the party is running on, or stands on — a living wage, health care for all, climate change, tuition-free or debt-free college — these are his issues, and the party is solidly behind him.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. Jonathan Easley contributed reporting.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Coronavirus Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden

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