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Why Bernie Sanders backed one of Wall Street’s favorite senators to lead Democrats

Bernie Sanders (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders stood with incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to announce the new leadership team of the Democratic Party, which included Democrats from across the ideological spectrum.

After Democrats not just lost the presidency but also failed to retake the Senate, Schumer argued that the party was largely united against Donald Trump. That argument was meant to be buttressed by the wide ideological and geographic diversity of the Democrats’ leadership team standing behind him at Wednesday’s press conference.

But it might seem weird for Sanders to get behind Schumer. No politician in Congress, Republican or Democrat, has taken more money from Goldman Sachs than Schumer. In an op-ed last week in the New York Times, Sanders said the Democratic Party would keep losing as long as it relies on “campaign financial support from billionaires.” He said that Donald Trump won partially because Hillary Clinton was too close to Wall Street. He urged the party to “break loose from its corporate establishment.”

But Sanders’s motives here are not hard to understand or particularly complicated. Sanders wants to remake the Democratic Party in his image to as great an extent as possible. And that will require him to make compromises with the very establishment he has long stood against.

Sanders needs allies if he’s going to influence the Democratic Party

This month, both Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorsed Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison in the upcoming race for the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

The DNC chair is an important position, with the authority to control the party’s fundraising and help set the party’s overall strategy. Ellison has quickly emerged as the candidate of the left flank of the party — he has a very progressive voting record in Congress, and he endorsed Sanders in the primary before swinging his support to Clinton in the general election. So it was no surprise that Sanders and Warren would align behind his candidacy.

Keith Ellison
Keith Ellison, endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer for DNC chair.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But then something surprising happened. Schumer, widely viewed as to the right of the Sanders wing, announced that he, too, would be supporting Ellison’s run at the chairmanship.

Ellison doesn’t have a lock on the position. At least three other candidates — including Howard Dean, the former DNC chair and Vermont governor; Jaime Harrison, the South Carolina Democratic Party chair; and Thomas Perez, the current labor secretary — have all announced they’ll be competing for the position. Which means it’s hard to imagine Schumer’s support for Ellison was preordained.

Given that Schumer is throwing his weight behind Sanders’s pick for DNC chair, it doesn’t make any sense for Sanders to respond by stabbing him in the back in the Senate leadership race. It also seems extremely unlikely that Sanders could push Schumer — a veteran who is very popular among his Democratic colleagues — out of the position anyway.

“Prior to 2016, Sanders was on the margins. Now that he’s much more in the arena after the elections, if he opposes the leadership of the party he jeopardizes what he won,” says Dave Hopkins, a Boston College political scientist.

“The Clinton era is over, the Obama era is about to be over, and so it would be a bad time for Sanders to say, ‘I’m not going to be a constructive part of the discussion; I’m going to shame people from afar. This is his chance — the party is looking for answers, and he has leverage to change it.”

Being in the opposition will make it easier for Democrats to unite

If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency and Democrats had retaken the Senate, you could imagine the logic of a full-scale war from the Bernie wing for leadership of the Senate caucus.

The Senate majority leader has a lot of sway over what policies get through the legislative process. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, will be a crucial player in any bill that goes through Congress in 2017. If the election had gone the other way, the stakes over the Democratic Senate leader would be enormous.

That’s decidedly less the case in the upcoming Donald Trump presidency and Republican Congress. Without power, Schumer is not going to shepherd legislation through the GOP-controlled chambers. His main goal will be stopping whatever the Republicans want.

And there’s going to be little disagreement between Schumer and Sanders there. They’ll both fiercely oppose most of the top-rate tax cuts, environmental deregulation, and whatever Obamacare cuts the GOP advances.

That joint opposition will paper over the divisions in the party. You can already see this dynamic playing out in how Schumer is deciding to choose his top senior leadership team. Though it had both Sanders and Warren, Schumer’s list of new Democratic leadership also included West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who is about as conservative as anyone in the party’s caucus.

“I believe there does not have to be a division,” Schumer told the Washington Post. “In fact, there must not be a division. We need to be the party that works on behalf of all Americans. And a bigger, bolder, sharper-edged economic message that talks about how people in the middle class and those struggling to make it there can do better.”

Schumer is, of course, being somewhat misleading in implying there isn't a division among the different factions of the Democratic Party. But if there’s anything we’re seeing in the age of Trump, it’s that the disparate factions in the Democratic caucus are going to have an incentive to play nice.