For months during the presidential primaries last summer, a debate raged over whether Bernie Sanders was “really” a Democrat. Sanders caucused with the Democrats in the Senate, but spent three decades as a registered independent and once scoffed at the Democratic and Republican candidates for Vermont governor as “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”
However, the outcome of the election has pushed Sanders more firmly into the Democratic tent. In November, Sanders was elevated to a leadership position under Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as the party’s official “outreach chair.” Sanders has appeared at press conferences with Democratic leadership, and next week will be flying to Michigan for an Obamacare rally with the state’s moderate Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.
Sanders’s newly prominent position comes through on Capitol Hill as well. During a vote on the Senate floor Wednesday night over the future of Obamacare, Sanders purported to speak for the rest of the Democratic caucus’ position. Here are his remarks:
I know I speak for virtually all Democrats in saying that we have deep concern about the Republican proposal, which would repeal the Affordable Care Act without having any alternative plan in place. And we think the idea of throwing some 30 million Americans off of the health insurance that they have — significantly reducing funding for Medicaid, which will not only be very problematic for lower-income people, but also impact middle-class people who depend on Medicaid to help pay for the nursing home care their parents get.
We are deeply concerned about the possible privatization of Medicare, making Medicare into a voucher program. We are concerned about the prices of prescription drugs — the increase in prescription drug costs for seniors that would occur if the Affordable Care Act were repealed. What we find outrageous is in the midst of all of these attacks on middle-class and working families of this country is that the Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act would end up providing hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the top 2 percent.
Sanders also offered specific and personal praise to 13 Democratic senators who proposed amendments aimed at curtailing Republican plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. In a mostly symbolic move Wednesday night, these senators offered a variety of amendments to force Republicans to take unpopular stances on health care.
Here’s Sanders again:
Tonight, you're going to hear a number of senators on the Democratic side come down to the floor and offer very, very important amendments, which I hope can receive bipartisan support. You're going to hear Senator [Joe] Manchin talk about the need to protect rural health. … Senator [Bill] Nelson is going to talk about the high cost of prescription drugs and what the repeal of the ACA would mean in raising prescription drug prices. Senator [Tammy] Baldwin will be talking about the need to make sure that — as is currently the case — young people 26 years of age or younger can continue to stay on their parents' health insurance. Senator [Jon] Tester is going to be offering an amendment which will oppose limiting veterans' ability to choose….
In the next breath, though, Sanders articulated a class-based interpretation of American politics, one most Democratic politicians typically aren’t willing to. “The votes tonight are really about whether we are prepared to stand up for ordinary Americans or whether we're going to continue to kowtow to the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.
This quote is classic Sanders, framing the policy debates on Capitol Hill as a struggle between a tiny financial elite and the working class. And it gives us a hint as to how Sanders might navigate his unique new role in the party: that of a one-time outsider who has suddenly become a key leader.