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Paul Ryan explains how Democrats became the party of Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is expected to formally endorse Hillary Clinton at a joint rally Tuesday — joining the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Communications Workers of America, and other hotbeds of Sanders sympathy in doing so. This is a somewhat bitter pill for some of Sanders’s more enthusiastic supporters, some of whom had still nurtured hopes of a convention fight and others of whom are simply very disappointed that Sanders lost.

But while the bulk of Sanders’s voters are quite young, something that’s striking to anyone who was familiar with the politics of the pre-Obama Democratic Party is how much closer today’s party is to Sanders than it was just a few years ago.

Just ask House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, who tells Playbook he doesn’t anticipate collaborating on a lot of bipartisan legislation with Clinton if she becomes president:

“I think she is actually a liberal progressive — I don’t think she’s faking it,” Ryan said. “I think she is a liberal progressive. And I think she’s sitting atop a party that’s now run by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This is not the Erskine Bowles 1996 Democratic Party. This is not Alice Rivlin, Erskine Bowles, or Bill Clinton in 1996 [Bowles and Rivlin were senior officials in Bill Clinton’s administration, on its more centrist side]. This is a Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders party. Our party has moved right, their party has moved really left. I think the common ground, say that you had in the early 90s when I was here as a staffer is nothing like the common ground you have right now.”

This is, in part, disingenuous on Ryan’s part. After support a raft of deficit-increasing legislation during George W. Bush’s time in office, Ryan pivoted to a deficit hawk posture during the Obama administration, so President Obama appointed him to the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission on which Alice Rivlin also served. Ryan wound up rejecting the commission’s recommended deficit reduction plan because it involved, among other things, tax increases.

This might have punctured Ryan’s imagine as a fiscal hawk, except it turns out that Paul Ryan is extraordinarily skilled at generating positive media coverage of Paul Ryan, so this decision never factors into coverage of Ryan — even when he is specifically saying he would like to work on bipartisan bills with Bowles and Rivlin.

But in a fundamental way, Ryan is correct — in 2016, the center of gravity in the Democratic Party is much closer to Bernie Sanders than it was in 2006 or 1996.

Democrats have shifted substantially to the left

To get a flavor of how far the party has moved, it’s useful to consult a 2006 document called “A New Direction for America, put out by Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel as an election manifesto for their ultimately successful effort to win a congressional majority for Democrats.

This is not the distant past that we are talking about. Clinton and Obama were sitting US senators, Pelosi is still House Democrats’ leader, Emanuel is an important party figure as mayor of Chicago, and Sanders was a veteran House member preparing to run for a US Senate seat. And yet 10 years is a long time in politics.

  • The “New Direction” did not mention climate change but did call for investments in “clean coal.”
  • It did not propose a single measure to provide health insurance to the uninsured.
  • Its only proposal on college affordability was to try to bring student loan interest rates down.
  • It promised to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour (this passed in 2007), which would be $8.64 today when adjusted for inflation.
  • Last but by no means least, House Democrats were loudly promising austerity budgeting under the banner of “fiscal discipline.”

Whatever you make of Hillary Clinton’s current policy agenda, there’s no denying that it’s far more left-wing across the board even as the status quo in many of these areas has shifted to the left.

Sanders himself, meanwhile, was advocating 10 years ago for roughly the same ideas on these topics as he stands for today. He was on the left flank of the party then and he’s on its left flank today, but that flank is much closer to the middle of the party thanks to a near-extinction of its right wing and a generally leftward tilt of mainstream Democrats after Obama’s win in 2008.

The old Democratic Party was better at winning elections

Regardless of its merits, one thing the 2006 iteration of the Democratic Party succeeded at doing was winning a lot of elections. It won Senate elections in Montana and Missouri, while electing governors in Arkansas and Tennessee.

The sudden collapse of George W. Bush’s popularity over the course of 2005 and 2006 was the primary driver of the Democrats’ big midterm success in 2006. But the national party’s commitment to a pretty bland, least common denominator agenda that didn’t have a ton of ideological content was also part of the mix.

The New Direction could certainly accommodate the kind of Democrat who wanted to crusade against the fossil fuel industry, strictly regulate gun purchases, or overthrow the neoliberal understanding of how labor markets function. But it could also accommodate politicians who didn’t want to do those things.

The post-Reagan Republican Party, after all, had become a very ideologically rigid organization that essentially holds that no tax should ever be raised for any reason and no problem whatsoever can be usefully ameliorated with business regulation.

Positioning themselves as a kind of big tent catchall alternative to that worked very well for Democrats across the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. Their ongoing reinvention as a more ideological party has coincided — not entirely coincidentally — with a period of weakness in down-ballot races, especially in midterm elections where turnout by young people is pathetically low. Even Sanders himself has faced intense — and ultimately successful — pressure over the past 10 years to shift his stances on immigration and gun control more into line with overarching liberal ideology and less in line with the quirks of local public opinion.

For a guy running in Vermont, that’s fine. And for Hillary Clinton running in a national election against Donald Trump, it’s probably also fine. But whether the new, more left-wing Democratic Party can actually secure a national governing majority in a way that the old weak-sauce one could remains an untested proposition.