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The Democratic establishment should chill out about Bernie Sanders

He has a long track record as a fairly banal, reasonably effective, and reasonably popular legislator.

Bernie Sanders waves. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The anti-Bernie Sanders zeal seducing the Democratic Party establishment into lashing out at the democratic socialist is a political mistake that only serves to simultaneously strengthen him as a primary candidate while weakening him as a potential president — the exact opposite of what his intraparty critics want.

As Sanders continues to rate highly in national polls, many longtime party stalwarts are palpably agitated over a blend of personal grievances and overblown political and policy concerns.

Die-hard Clinton operative David Brock is looking to lead a nascent “stop Sanders” movement. Former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina is musing aloud that he thinks Sanders is unelectable, in a fairly obvious effort to scare electability-minded rank-and-file Democrats. And the mutual distaste has fueled sniping between the party’s policy shop — the Center for American Progress (CAP) — and Sanders’s team.

As a personal matter, the establishment’s response is understandable. Sanders, an independent Vermont senator, tends to portray the institutional Democratic Party as corrupt and relentlessly sows suspicion about the motives and integrity of everyone who disagrees with him. He treats the catastrophe of the 2016 election as a deserved rebuke to party leaders. And he brushes aside mountains of practical realities that others have spent years dealing with.

But blowing up over this makes no sense. The whole point of a party establishment is to be cynical, detached, practical-minded, and realistic. If they assess Sanders’s actual track record —rather than his personally insulting rhetoric — they’d discover a fairly unremarkable blue-state liberal who’s good at winning elections and has extensive experience with the disappointing realities of the legislative process.

Ironically, the establishment would be far better off acknowledging Sanders’s conventionality — as he pointed out at a Monday night CNN town hall, it’s not like he ran around abolishing private businesses when he was mayor of Burlington.

Overreacting to Sanders frames the case for him in a more dramatic light than he deserves, while also generating ill will that will hurt Democrats no matter who the nominee is. Meanwhile, even if you don’t love Sanders, there’s simply no good reason for anyone who broadly backs the main ideas of the contemporary Democratic Party to hate him. Substance and actual record matter more than style and rhetoric, and Sanders’s actual record is that of a reasonably effective, reasonably pragmatic politician who has a quirky habit of referring to himself as a democratic socialist.

Bernie Sanders’s electoral track record is good

The electability red flags about Sanders are obvious, starting with the fact that “socialism” polls extremely poorly with the large majority of the electorate that’s over the age of 35. He’s also old, which voters say, at least, is something they worry about.

That said, the flip side of Sanders being an older socialist is he’s actually run in a lot of elections. This means we have some pretty good information about whether he’s good at winning elections. The evidence suggests that he is.

He first got to Congress by winning a tough three-way race in 1990 (Vermont was an only slightly blue-leaning state). He then went on to consistently run ahead of Democratic Party presidential campaigns in Vermont as a candidate for the at-large seat in the US House of Representatives:

  • In 1992, Sanders got 58 percent to Bill Clinton’s 46 (it was a strong state for presidential candidate Ross Perot, but Bernie also faced a “third party” challenge from a Democrat).
  • In 1996, Sanders got 55 percent to Clinton’s 53 percent.
  • In 2000, Sanders got 69 percent to Al Gore’s 51 percent.
  • In 2004, Sanders got 67 percent to John Kerry’s 59 percent.
  • In 2006, Sanders got elected to the Senate, so he wasn’t on the ballot in 2008 or 2016. But in 2012, he won 71 percent of the vote to Obama’s 67 percent in the state.

This is not definitive proof of Sanders’s skills because over the past 20 years, these haven’t really been vigorously contested races. But the fact that he does run ahead of the Democratic Party presidential nominee consistently is relevant information on two scores. First, Sanders is clearly able to transcend the unpopularity of “socialism” as a label and get people to think of him as a good guy who they want to vote for despite some eccentricities. Second, Sanders appears to be able to make lemonade out of the whole “not officially a Democrat” thing by getting the votes of some non-Republicans who backed Perot in the 1990s and other third-party candidates such as Jill Stein, Ralph Nader, and Gary Johnson more recently.

Sanders’s 2018 results, similarly, while not entirely backing up the “most popular politician in America” hype from some of his fans, suggest a distinctly above-average performance relative to the underlying partisan fundamentals. He’s not quite as impressive as Amy Klobuchar, a 2020 contender whose entire rationale is about electability, but an examination of his actual track record should significantly calm fears that Sanders is a surefire loser.

Meanwhile, not only has Sanders won a lot of elections, he’s served in government for a long time in a way that should assuage concerns that he has no idea what he’s doing.

Bernie has a banal blue state senator record

Much of Sanders’s campaign rhetoric appears to suggest a wildly naive or uninformed understanding of how the American political system actually operates. To veterans of Beltway politics, or simply folks who’ve been around long enough and watched multiple cycles of exaggerated hopes followed by disappointment, this can be troubling. Is President Sanders really going to think that if he just bangs the table loudly enough, a “political revolution” will allow for a top-to-bottom restructuring of the American health care system?

The good news here, again, is that Bernie Sanders is not an obnoxious 20-something with a red rose in his Twitter account, but rather a guy who’s served nearly 30 years on Capitol Hill.

In that time, Sanders has sometimes staked out lonely courageous stands (against the Defense of Marriage Act or the Iraq War) that senators with less progressive values or less safe seats wouldn’t have. But he’s never pulled a Freedom Caucus-type stunt and refused to cast a pragmatic vote in favor of half a loaf.

Sanders voted for Obama’s Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization bill in 2009 and then again for the Affordable Care Act in 2010. He voted for the Dodd-Frank bill and every other contentious piece of Obama-era legislation. He sometimes cast protest votes against bipartisan bills that sailed through Congress with huge majorities (like the lame-duck tax-and-stimulus deal that the White House reached with congressional legislators at the end of 2010), but whenever his vote was needed to incrementally advance some progressive cause, it was there.

Indeed, this has been somewhat forgotten in the wake of the 2016 primary campaign: While Obama was in the White House, it was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who attracted the ire of administration officials and congressional leaders by occasionally spiking executive branch nominees or blowing up bipartisan deals.

Sanders, by contrast, was not a troublemaker at all. He talked about his blue-sky political ideals as something he believed in passionately, but he separated that idealism from his practical legislative work, which was grounded in vote counts.

The policy area on which he’s had the most practical influence is veterans issues, as he chaired the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for a two-year span, during which Congress enacted substantive reform to the veterans health system.

Given the objective constellation of political forces at the time, this required bipartisan support, so Sanders (working mainly with Republican John McCain) produced a bipartisan bill that in exchange for a substantial boost in funding made some concessions to conservatives in creating “private options” for veterans to seek care outside of the publicly run Veterans Affairs system.

It’s fine if you want to be annoyed that Sanders’s self-presentation as a revolutionary who will sweep all practical obstacles aside is at odds with his reality as an experienced legislator who does normal senator stuff in a normal way. But there’s no reason to actually be worried that Sanders is a deluded radical who doesn’t understand how the government works. Just look at how he’s actually governed.

Sanders was an eccentric, competent mayor of Burlington

Sanders was able to get to Congress, of course, because he developed a positive reputation after an effective run as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

His initial electoral win was razor-thin and a little bit flukey, featuring both a Republican challenger and a fairly conservative Democratic incumbent who essentially split the vote, allowing a third-party candidate to slip past and achieve victory. In that inaugural campaign, Sanders effectively courted the support of the Burlington police union with promises of better pay and equipment (a stance that could get you in hot water with the modern-day Democratic Socialists of America). But he got reelected repeatedly because he turned out to be a solid, effective mayor.

A signature controversy of his time in office was his campaign against a proposed property tax increase, with him instead proposing a tax on Burlington’s restaurant and hotel sales. Pushing the tax base off local property owners and onto customers of tourism-oriented businesses proved to be popular, and the tailwinds backing the growth of Burlington as a tourist destination were strong enough to make this a successful policy.

Sanders also spiked a proposed waterfront redevelopment plan and then worked out a new arrangement with the relevant developer that secured some more public amenities. Leftists then rallied and spiked Sanders’s new compromise, which required a ballot initiative to pass. Eventually, after some lawsuits, the area ended up being mostly turned into a park.

Profiles of Sanders written in the mainstream press in the 1980s invariably end up emphasizing that as the city’s leader he was very much in the tradition of Milwaukee’s turn-of-the-century “sewer socialist” mayors — a person who ended up winning votes based on competent delivery of public services rather than strong ideological appeals. A Russell Banks profile written for the Atlantic in 1985 featured gushing praise from a local Republican leader:

Allen Gear, a Republican member of the Board of Aldermen since 1979, looking back over Sanders’s tenure as mayor, says, “He’s done things I don’t think we Republicans could have done, because the two traditional parties in a town like this are very close. We interact with each other on business over coffee, over tea, crumpets and marmalade, if you will, and it would have been very hard for us, us being Republicans, if we had the Chief Executive’s spot, to have done some of the things Bernie has done. ...

He’s taken a lot of very Republican ideas and put them in place. Such as combining all of the garages of the various city departments and putting them into a single public-works department, initially a Republican proposal, to gain efficiency in handling city rolling stock. ... He’s put a lot of modern accounting practices and money-management practices into place that are good Republican business practices. ... And he has surrounded himself with some very talented, vigorous people.”

A 1983 profile by Jon Margolis actually took this observation so far as to end up assuming that “Sanders, even if re-elected, probably will not have much impact outside Burlington” because Bernie was aloof from national socialist organizations and “prefers to make the revolution in one city, fill the potholes, and keep the tax rate down.”

This was obviously a bad prediction, and it ignored the extent to which Sanders really did try to push socialism where he could. As Michael Crowley and Michael Kruse recounted in a 2015 Politico profile, Sanders frequently veered outside his lane as mayor to criticize Reagan-era foreign policy and demonstrate solidarity with Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. But just as Sanders’s actual legislative career is considerably more practical than his rhetoric, when antiwar activists tried to shut down a Burlington factory that was making weapons for anti-communist forces in Central America, Bernie had the protesters arrested, noting that the plant was a source of well-paying union jobs for the local community.

Sanders was not a crypto-conservative or anything — under his leadership, the city enacted tighter tenant protection laws, invested in affordable housing, and hiked pay for city workers. But fundamentally, if not for the “socialist” label, there would be nothing particularly remarkable about his tenure in office relative to what any normal liberal Democratic mayor would do — it’s just that he beat the old conservative machine as a third-party candidate rather than in a primary.

Slamming Sanders only makes him stronger

Rather than finding the reality of Sanders’s long career as a fairly banal, fairly pragmatic, reasonably effective public servant reassuring, many establishment-minded Democrats I speak to find it enraging. They are mad as hell that Sanders doesn’t admit that his career and approach to government prove they’ve been right all along and that his stinging criticisms of them are mostly opportunistic.

That’s fair enough as far as it goes.

But as I was once told by an operative for the now-defunct centrist Democratic Leadership Council, you can’t take the politics out of politics. From Sanders’s perspective, why should he drop a shtick that’s taken him so far? And to the extent that one’s actual problem with Sanders is that he’s annoying rather than unelectable or incompetent, then lashing out at him only makes it more likely that he’ll win the primary.

At the end of the day, the Sanders movement thrives on drama — on the false belief that the objective constraints that Sanders has been navigating since the early 1980s would be magically swept away if only an incorruptible man like Bernie Sanders was in the White House. Sanders’s own decades-long record of dealmaking shows that this isn’t true, but when establishment Democrats freak out about Sanders, it makes it seem like maybe it is true. That maybe if Sanders becomes president a utopian new era will dawn, and that’s why all the shills and neoliberals are so geared up about him.

The reality, obviously, is that if Democrats do very well in the 2020 elections, they only might secure a scenario in which Blue Dog Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) holds the median vote in the US Senate. Under those circumstances, it’s not just that Sanders’s agenda won’t pass — every single Democrat in the field except maybe Klobuchar is running on a platform that’s wildly unrealistic.

There is absolutely no universe in which Sanders can enact an agenda that’s more left-wing than what a Kamala Harris administration would deliver, since not only Harris herself but dozens of more conservative senators would need to vote for anything he does.

Sanders’s tendency to paint the entire non-Sanders Democratic Party as corrupt is annoying and offensive to the establishment on a personal level, but the smart strategy is to just take a deep breath and try to stay calm as the primary plays out. Establishment Democrats don’t need to like him (and certainly don’t need to vote for him), but there’s no point in validating his most unrealistic promises by working overtime to take him down.

If he wins, he’s going to need help

At the end of the day, a lot of politics on the elite level is about jobs and influence.

It’s almost certainly true that someone like Sanders, who’s spent his political career on the margins of the Democratic Party, will try to bring some people into government whom Harris or Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg would not. That being said, there are literally thousands of executive branch jobs that a new president needs to fill. Many of them require Senate confirmation, and you need to fill a healthy share of them with people who have relevant experience and expertise. In a practical sense, that means plenty of jobs for people with experience in the Obama administration or at a senior level on Capitol Hill — i.e., jobs for the dread establishment.

That’s why Obama beating Hillary in 2008 did not lead to the overthrow of the “Clintonites” and why despite Trump’s various efforts to impose loyalty tests on his administration, he has, in practice, ended up appointing tons of members of the conservative policy establishment to his team.

A President Sanders is going to need people who can process Medicaid waiver applications, write labor and environmental regulations that stand up in court, manage interactions with professional military and intelligence officers, and work with Senate allies on judicial confirmations.

He’s going to need appointees such as an undersecretary of energy for science, someone to run the Federal Railroad Administration, and an assistant secretary of Treasury for financial institutions. No senator’s personal network encompasses enough viable candidates to fill these slots, and Sanders has spent the past 30 years very much not building up an institutional democratic socialist movement that could substitute for the normal Democratic Party in this regard.

But like any president, he’s going to want a team of people he feels he can trust. So the most likely scenario for establishmentarians to end up frozen out of a potential Sanders administration is to go nuclear against him in the primary or try to undermine his general election campaign.

The smartest strategy is to treat him exactly like any other slightly outside-the-box candidate (former three-term Congress member from El Paso, mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, etc.) and be politely encouraging from the sidelines. Faced with such a big field, the odds of any particular contender winning are fairly low. But Sanders certainly might win the nomination.

And if he gets it, Democrats will have a nominee with some unique weaknesses but also a record of strong electoral performance and a substantive governing record that reveals someone who is dramatically more pragmatic than his record. From an establishment standpoint, in other words, he’d be perfectly fine. And while over-the-top denunciations of Sanders might have made sense as a cynical way to curry favor with Hillary Clinton in 2016, there’s no strategic logic to doing it today.