Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is the early frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, but there is one problem. He is missing a crucial ingredient from his almost successful 2016 run: contrast. Despite the fact that he has served in elected office for 38 years, Sanders knows he needs to run as an anti-establishment outsider. As such, he couldn’t have asked for a more perfect personification of machine politics than Hillary Clinton. But Hillary is not in the mix for this coming showdown, so Bernie has resorted to conjuring her menacing shadow.
Channeling the Ghost of Hillary
Sanders penned a blistering letter to the Center for American Progress, a Democrat think tank closely allied with the Clintons. “Center for American Progress leader Neera Tanden repeatedly calls for unity while simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas,” the senator wrote. “I worry that the corporate money CAP is receiving is inordinately and inappropriately influencing the role it is playing in the progressive movement.”
It is no coincidence that Sanders targeted Tanden by name as the veteran progressive activist “has spent the better part of two decades at [Hillary] Clinton’s side — first as a White House aide, then as a top staffer in her Senate office, later as policy director of the 2008 campaign,” Politico noted in 2016.
Sanders also called out another longtime Clintonite, David Brock, in similar fashion. After The New York Times ran a recent article claiming there was a “Stop Sanders” wing of the Democratic Party dedicated to defeating him in the primaries, the senator immediately sent out a fundraising letter to supporters painting Brock as the sinister man behind the curtain. “David Brock, who led a multi-million dollar smear campaign against us in 2016, is looking to lead the effort and hopes ‘an anti-Sanders campaign’ will start ‘sooner rather than later,'” the letter read.
As Tara Golshan, writing at the left-wing website Vox observed, the Sanders camp needs a “them” to bring his “us” together in the Democratic ranks. Hillary’s people are no longer controlling the levers of power within the party as they did in 2016. The Democratic National Committee is working with Sanders these days, not trying to fix the outcome against him, Golshan notes. By portraying well-known Clinton acolytes like Tanden and Brock as the devious agents of corporate Democrat power, Sanders hopes to convince Dems who supported him in 2016 that he still leads a vital movement to purify the party of elitist corruption.
He really has little choice. Sanders can hardly claim that the deck is stacked against him this time around, to allow any of the other completely underwhelming Dem candidates to secure a rigged nomination. After all, there are no hints of a Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) conspiracy in the air. Thus he is picking at old wounds from his 2016 Hillary feud in hopes of riling his supporters against a Democratic establishment that must now serve as the all-powerful villain that Hillary so ably embodied last time around.
As with all forms of socialism throughout history, it feeds off of grievance and victimhood.
If, as expected, former vice president Joe Biden enters the race, Sanders may very well try to prop him up as the black knight of a nefarious Democrat establishment. But Biden does not fit the figure of entrenched corruption nearly as well as Hillary did. If he goes on the attack against Biden, Sanders may come across to fellow Dems as ugly and mean-spirited, something he never had to worry about when slamming a granite-faced Clinton four years ago.
Let’s say Sanders does capture the party’s nomination – how then will he be able to tailor his underdog brand of anti-establishment politics as an alternative to a “change” president like Donald Trump? Bernie’s socialist uprising against a rigged system won’t have the immediate natural contrast needed to reach anti-establishment voters. He will struggle to explain how the president is in fact the servant of the corporate elite after he and his fellow party members have constantly demonized Trump as a dangerously erratic one-man wrecking crew for the past few years.
Bernie’s longing for a Hillary dragon to slay shows just how limited his allure is. Shorn of that ideal foil, his campaign will be forced to stand on its own merits. And those particulars are not something the American people have ever valued. Hillary Clinton made Bernie a sympathetic figure in 2015. Sooner or later on the road to the 2020 election, he is going to discover just how much he misses her.