Amid a swirl of speculation about Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and practically everyone else under the sun as potential Democratic presidential contenders, most of the political class is ignoring the elephant in the room. Bernie Sanders is, by some measures the most popular politician in America, by far Democrats’ most in-demand public speaker, and the most prolific grassroots fundraiser in American history.
If he were 10 or 20 years younger, his absence from a 2020 cattle call held by the Center for American Progress back in May would have been glaring. As things stood, the whisper among everyone in the halls was simply that he’s too old and obviously won’t run.
But make no mistake: Sanders is the real 2020 Democratic frontrunner.
He’s doing exactly what a candidate who fell short needs to do to run a second time. He’s established a national political organization, he’s improved his ties with colleagues on Capitol Hill, he’s maintained a heavy presence in national media, and he’s traveling the country talking about issues.
In subtle ways he’s shifted his policy commitments to the center, making himself a more broadly acceptable figure in the party. At the same time, he’s held on to a couple of signature issues — Medicare-for-all and tuition-free public college — that give him exactly the kind of clear-cut and broadly accessible agenda that mainstream Democrats lack.
Of course, if he were to run and win, he’d be 78 years old, the oldest president on record by some margin. And maybe he won’t run. But his recent moves suggest that he is both interested in the nomination and very much the candidate to beat for it.
Nobody thought Bernie Sanders could win
By the time it was clear the Sanders 2016 campaign had legs, it was already fatally hobbled. Almost no one believed in the summer and fall of 2015 that he stood any chance of beating Hillary Clinton — and that included Sanders himself. As Patrick Healy and Yamiche Alcindor reported last April, he “was originally skeptical that he could beat Mrs. Clinton, and his mission in 2015 was to spread his political message about a rigged America rather than do whatever it took to win the nomination” and only began to really focus on trying to win when his poll numbers unexpectedly soared in early 2016.
Consequently, labor leaders who sympathized with Sanders’s critique of Clinton didn’t give any serious thought to actually endorsing him. Instead, they used his presence in the race as leverage to extract concessions on issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Cadillac tax on high-value health insurance plans from Clinton.
And since Sanders was running to raise the profile of his issues rather than to win, he didn’t bother to develop much in the way of answers to foreign policy questions, even though Clinton’s record of support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and her hawkish instincts were some of her biggest vulnerabilities with the Democratic Party base.
Elected officials were almost uniformly afraid to endorse him, even if their policy views were closer to his than to Clinton’s, and left-of-center think tanks — including ones that are deliberately positioned to the left of mainstream Democrats ideologically — shied away from working with Sanders on policy development, for fear that Clinton’s wrath would destroy them if they did.
A key Sanders edge next time is that he won’t be underestimated. The bulk of the labor movement backed Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid to be DNC chair in the Obama-Sanders proxy war for control of the party machinery. And throughout 2017, Sanders has worked effectively with his fellow congressional Democrats — getting on board with a Russia message that his core supporters don’t love, co-sponsoring a minimum wage bill with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), headlining rallies in support of the Affordable Care Act.
The groundwork is laid, in short, for a much more normal primary race in which Democratic Party actors who are close to Sanders ideologically will mostly back him, rather than either backing his opponent or staying neutral, as they did in 2016.
Sanders is building his team
Earlier this year, Sanders — who doesn’t sit on the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, or Intelligence Committees — quietly added to his team Matt Duss, a veteran Middle East analyst known for looking askance at America’s tendency toward uncritical alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel. It’s a clear sign that Sanders, who had a keen interest in left-wing foreign policy as mayor of Burlington but hasn’t had much of a profile on the issue in Congress, is serious about being able to play competently on the full spectrum of issues.
Sanders also picked up Ari Rabin-Havt, best known in recent years for his Sirius XM radio show but previously an adviser for Harry Reid in his early years as Democrats’ Senate leader.
While Sanders is deepening his team in Washington, his national political organization Our Revolution is diligently working to get Sanders supporters elected to state and local offices. Critically, the list of Our Revolution winners — a group that includes House members, state legislators, state party chairs, and even city council members — is quite ethnically diverse. His camp is aware that 2016’s African-American outreach strategy was flawed in both concept and execution, and he’s setting himself up to be able to count on black and Latino elected officials from all regions of the country as surrogates while also courting national leaders like the NAACP’s William Barber.
Sanders is quietly moderating
Last but by no means least, even while continuing to build his national political organization and to stay in the public eye as the champion of a rising generation of young leftists, Sanders is quietly moving to address party officials’ concerns about ideological extremism.
His June 13 New York Times op-ed, provocatively titled “How Democrats Can Stop Losing Elections,” is perhaps the ultimate expression of post-election Sanders.
It retains the caustic tone toward the party leadership that’s a key source of his appeal to left-of-center voters who dislike Republicans but don’t feel an emotional or intellectual connection to the Democratic Party. And it retains his commitment to the idea that “Democrats must guarantee health care to all as a right, through a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program” — an idea that for years most Democrats (including, at times, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, etc.) have said they embrace in theory but have almost always shied away from proposing in practice.
But on other issue areas, Sanders’s proposals — make the wealthy pay more in taxes, invest in infrastructure, encourage clean energy, create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, reform the criminal justice system — are in line with the party consensus. His primary season demands to break up large banks, ban hydraulic fracturing nationwide, and impose a carbon tax are gone from the agenda. In the wake of the success of “Bernie Would Have Won” as a slogan, Sanders has deeply engaged his base using Medicare-for-all while reconfiguring other elements of his platform into something more moderate than the one he actually ran on and for which a much stronger electability argument can be made.
With Sanders’s strong support of Heath Mello’s ultimately failed bid to become mayor of Omaha, his growing prominence has even become a reed of hope for America’s long-suffering anti-abortion Democrats, who argue with some plausibility that ideological flexibility on this topic is integral to securing congressional majorities.
Meanwhile, once-intractable splits like the war over whether the minimum wage should be raised to $12 or $15 are suddenly getting easier. Sanders and Murray teamed up on a leadership-endorsed bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but not until 2024, by which time inflation should make it about $12 an hour in today’s terms.
Bernie Sanders has a clear message
Part of what makes Sanders’s softening on a variety of issues work for him is that the 2016 campaign so thoroughly cemented his brand as the true hero of the left, willing to boldly take on the party establishment and say things that nobody else would say. His tendency to continue rhetorically distancing himself from the Democratic Party also helps seal that deal.
But the fundamental glue that holds it together is the ongoing potency of Sanders’s crusade for a single-payer health care system. This is, for starters, the longtime passion of National Nurses United, far and away the most influential interest group to actually back Sanders and an institutional pillar of his ongoing work.
It’s also an issue that speaks directly to key point of frustration between grassroots progressives and the Democratic Party leadership.
Democrats almost all profess admiration for Medicare, and they resist Republican efforts to turn it into a voucherized system for buying private insurance. And when discussing completely abstract policy, they will generally agree that Canadian-style health care systems where the government manages a single insurance pool make sense. Most Democrats even — sporadically, at least — endorse ideas like a Medicare buy-in for older people or a public option in the Affordable Care Act framework.
But they are generally unwilling to stand up and campaign on the idea that Medicare isn’t just worth expanding but worth extending to everyone — generally citing political feasibility as the reason. The call for Democrats to stand up for what most progressives believe in is clear and compelling, and unwillingness to embrace the idea feeds into the assumption that establishment party leaders aren’t quite on the level. Particularly for a younger generation of voters who don’t remember the way big-bang health reform crashed and burned in 1993 and who had their expectations raised and then not quite met by the Affordable Care Act, the idea of Medicare for everyone stands out as an appealingly ambitious but also concrete goal.
The rest of the party, meanwhile, is to a large extent floundering on a policy level — aware that an opposition party should develop a policy agenda, but not exactly sure what it wants to say.
Bernie Sanders is very old
Of course, just because everyone would see Sanders as the frontrunner if he were 60 doesn’t change the fact that he’s 75. Establishment Democrats I talk to simply assume that Sanders is “too old” and won’t run.
And he might be. Certainly, were he to run in 2020, he would be the oldest person to ever secure a major party nomination. At the same time, it’s far from clear that there really is an age ceiling on presidential politics. Donald Trump and John McCain, who were 70 and 72, respectively, when they secured their party’s nominations, did not appear to suffer for their ages in a way that clearly indicates they were pushing some kind of uncrossable boundary.
Older politicians sometimes suffer, as Clinton did in 2016, from a sense that their politics has become outdated. But the Democratic Party as a whole has shifted its ideological footprint substantially in Sanders’s direction over the past 25 years, so in his case, age makes him look prescient.
And for now, at least, Sanders certainly gives the impression of being healthy and spry. He’s active on the national political scene, barnstorming the country for his Our Revolution candidates, performing at rallies, and making the rounds on Sunday television shows.
Nobody inside or outside of his camp denies that he’s older than would be objectively ideal. But the leap from there to too old to run simply isn’t supported by the facts. And while active Clinton supporters after cite the idea that Sanders is too old as an objection to supporting him next time, one almost never hears this from people who supported him last time around — indicating, again, that whatever problems Sanders 2020 would encounter, a sequel campaign would be a stronger force than the original.
If not him, who?
Sanders sympathizers who are not necessarily fully bought-in Berners typically feel that the most reasonable arrangement would be for Sanders to stand down in favor of Elizabeth Warren. The pair’s views are regarded in Washington as essentially interchangeable, and it’s widely said by people in Sanders’s circle that he would have supported her had she chosen to run in 2016.
And the Warren option is the more appealing one in many ways. Warren is younger (though not young, per se), she would meet the keen desire of liberal women who work in politics professionally to see a woman in the White House, she’s better liked by wonks as a rigorous policy thinker, and, most critically, she would represent a populist ideological viewpoint without picking at all the scabs from the 2016 primary.
But for people inside the Sanders camp, this is arguably exactly the problem.
Any mass political movement becomes, to an extent, self-referential. Warren, pointedly, did not step up to challenge Clinton even when many party actors wanted her to. And when Sanders did step up, she didn’t back him — opting instead for a studied neutrality. That decision has consequences for how she’s seen by Sanders’s core supporters — they signed up for an idealistic struggle against the party establishment, and she played a cynical game of power politics. And it appears to have influenced Sanders’s personal view of a natural ally. The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer reports that Sanders “peremptorily dismissed me from his office for asking a question about his political relationship with Elizabeth Warren.”
I've asked a lot of folks who they think should run if Bernie doesn't and the most frequent answer is Nina Turner.— Tim Dotcom (@timothypmurphy) June 11, 2017
Among the Bernie faithful the most frequently named fallback candidate isn’t the well-known Warren or labor-liberal warhorse Sherrod Brown. It’s Nina Turner, a fairly obscure former Ohio state senator who served as an effective surrogate for Sanders during the primary. Turner is a skilled public speaker, she took tough shots at Clinton during the campaign, and she’s a black woman whose prominence in the movement Sanders fans feel ought to rebut allegations that it’s a white male bro-fest.
But a Bernie-backed former state senator from Ohio sounds more like an underdog contender for the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election than like the Democratic Party’s 2020 nominee.
It’s time to take Bernie Sanders seriously
The Democratic Party establishment is, in many respects, in worse shape than it realizes.
Sanders’s insurgent campaign revealed a Democratic Party electorate that is fairly eager to embrace an ideological champion as a progressive counterpoint to the decidedly conservative GOP. The notion of pragmatism continues to carry weight, but having lost control of all three branches of the federal government and blundered to a point where Democrats don’t control the state Senate in New York or the governor’s mansion in Illinois, party leaders’ credentials as strategic masterminds are in question.
Last but by no means least, relying on African-American voters as a bulwark against left-wingery, as Clinton did, is tenuous as black views on economic policy are generally quite left-wing. Democrats now rely heavily for votes on the large — and very Democratic-leaning — millennial generation that lacks clear political memories of the Cold War or the booming neoliberal economy of the 1990s, so “socialism” isn’t a scare word for them, even as it remains unpopular nationally.
Sanders became their champion over the course of 2016 and continues to hold that status now. But while in 2016 he faced a unified — and intimidating — opponent and launched with a ramshackle campaign, today he has a strong national political organization, a proven fundraising track record, and is moving decisively to address his weak points on international affairs, policy development, and minority outreach. Everyone agrees that in a perfect world he’d also wave a magic wand and scrape 10 or 15 years off his age, but that’s not possible. The movement he’s created lacks an obviously more compelling successor, and he continues to be broadly popular with the public.
Predicting the future is a mug’s game. But if Bernie Sanders runs again, he’ll be hard to beat. And as far as one can tell, he’s doing everything you would do to set yourself up to run again.