The leading socialist in the Democratic caravan of presidential candidates is being pushed too far to the left by his own party. That sentence should tell you all you need to know about the serious problems Dems will have mounting a national campaign against President Trump in 2020.
Forgetting What Got Him There?
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has of course always been firmly planted on the radical side of the progressive aisle throughout his lengthy congressional career. But he was able to catch fire with his upstart challenge to the DNC’s planned coronation of Hillary Clinton as the party’s standard bearer in 2016 not by accentuating his leftist bona fides but by painting himself as a scrappy outsider fighting against a corrupt establishment. Sanders was in many ways the blue side of the American populist wave that eventually catapulted Republican anti-establishment nominee Trump all the way to the White House.
The New England senator’s most effective messaging in 2016 addressed the hollowing out of the U.S. manufacturing base and a global trade field unfairly tilted against the American worker. With Hillary serving as his ideal foil, he was, like Trump, able to position himself during the Dem primary process as the insurgent alternative to 30-odd years of a corrupt Swamp Uniparty brand of politics that carried water for moneyed elites and ignored the interests of the citizens of this nation. Even at the age of 74, this renegade posture made Sanders look spry and ready for battle, his combative nature serving as an undeniable positive in an election that was all about change.
It is remarkable how all of that energy has evaporated this time around. The party’s move to an entrenched strident progressive dogmatism has completely stripped Sanders of his independent air. Like the rest of the Dem candidates, Sanders is too often trapped in reaction mode, always aware of the need to constantly placate a grassroots base that will not brook serious deviation from the party’s left-leaning orthodoxy. This dynamic has hampered all contenders to various degrees but it has especially damaged the persona of Blue Collar Bernie that Team Sanders worked so hard to create four years ago.
Instead of talking to the American people as a whole, Dem candidates have been forced to prove their loyalty on a variety of particularist agendas, including climate change, the rights of illegal immigrants, and the never-ending identity politics clamoring on race, sex, and gender. A strong, confident Sanders was able to effortlessly swat away a liberal journalist’s call for him to support open borders in a 2015 interview, famously labeling it a “Koch brothers proposal.” “It would make everybody in America poorer — you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that,” Sanders told an incredulous Ezra Klein of Vox magazine. “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy,” he continued. “Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.”
Too Blue to Be Cool
Now this was the fire that propelled the Bernie Boom. Contrast that with the sad spectacle today of Sanders, in full response mode, desperately trying to button up his climate change credentials for a party base that demands total devotion on the issue. When asked at a “climate change forum” on Sept. 19 whether he supports a full U.S. commitment to bringing in massive numbers of climate change asylum seekers, Sanders not only said yes, he insisted that the scale be worldwide. “I think that is absolutely something that we have to look at, and I think I would be positively disposed to that,” Sanders said. “But it has to exist all over the world…. I mean, it’s not just people in Latin America who would gravitate to the United States. It is people all over the world.”
This reply is the antithesis of everything that made Bernie a phenomenon for a certain moment of time in 2015 and 2016. This is the crux of his problems in 2019. Instead of driving the issues in the Dem ranks, Sanders now complies with party norms. Rather than focusing on working Americans, he proclaims fealty to a radical faction that is dedicated to bringing as many foreigners into the country as possible. Not only does this make the self-defined “democratic socialist” appear more extreme than the Sanders of four years ago, it also makes him look far more meek and passive. The feistiness of 2015 now comes across as crankiness as Sanders stoically labors to satisfy a progressive base that calls for uniform consensus by all those seeking to be the party’s nominee.
Whatever momentum Sanders brought into this race from 2016 has been decisively stifled by this stagnant primary environment. The days of him storming the barricades as the Democrat version of the gleeful populist mutineer against the political establishment seem gone forever. The progressive dominance of the Democratic base has stripped Sanders of both his blue-collar resonance and his rebellious spirit. Whether Bernie Bros want to admit it or not, their man has become just another face in a very bland and all-too-uniform 2020 Democratic crowd.