The great irony of Bernie Sanders’s socialist revolution is that for it to have any chance of succeeding, the Vermont senator would have to convince his fellow Americans that it wasn’t very revolutionary. In fact, it merely required his adopted political party to return to the path from which it had recently strayed.
Democrats, according to Sanders, have broken from the successful formula of President Franklin Roosevelt, who assembled a coalition in part made up of immigrants, city dwellers, left-wing intellectuals, and black people to restructure the economy and the future of the party radically. The New Deal coalition was broader than that, of course, with rural Southerners and trade unionists providing Roosevelt with electoral margins that gave him and the Democratic Party supermajorities for years. But that coalition, to hear Sanders say it, had been broken, along with the menu of rights and privileges it offered.
“Now,” Sanders said June 19 in Washington, D.C., “we must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman, and child in our country basic economic rights — the right to quality healthcare, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a decent job, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment.”
There was one problem for Bernie, however: If none of this was revolutionary, if it was mainstream Democratic Party consensus, why would the party need to elect a socialist? In fact, it wouldn’t. It just needed to win. So Democrats nominated Joe Biden, a man who revels in his centrist reputation and who could plausibly piece together a broad enough coalition. Sanders lost the election because he won the argument.
That has brought about another paradox: Bernie’s ideas are still the party’s future, yet he has been the invisible man since the start of the Biden era of the Democratic Party.
From stimulus negotiations to Cabinet appointments, Sanders’s efforts to exert any official influence over the party after the presidential primary have been in vain. Biden nominated Neera Tanden, an outspoken Sanders critic and boogeyman for the far Left, for director of the Office of Management and Budget, reportedly without consulting Sanders even though Sanders will be chairman of the Senate committee through which her confirmation process must march.
During stimulus negotiations, Biden intervened behind the scenes to encourage congressional Democrats to accept Republicans’ offer and fight back against the rising demands to raise the direct payments to $2,000, one of the only issues Sanders has passionately spoken out about since the end of his presidential campaign. The subsequent populist demand for a larger stimulus check only reached its high point when President Donald Trump flip-flopped on his own administration’s bargaining position of $600. Before then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi championed the bill as an unequivocal progressive victory and a package that “will meet the needs of the American people.”
Some of this has to do with Sanders’s hesitation to wield the power he does have. Take, for example, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the Senate’s few vocal supporters of larger cash transfers. Hawley was considering shutting down the government over his demands for more relief money. Only at the very last minute, the Washington Examiner learned, did he back out.
But Sanders threatened no such hardball tactics and instead briefly delayed passage of the defense bill, a broadly symbolic gesture that led to no concessions from the Democratic Party. It was Biden, not Sanders, who all but guaranteed a new wave of relief checks should his party win control of the Senate, which it then did in the early January runoffs in which Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock defeated David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Trump himself also helped the push by calling for the bill to raise the direct payments after it passed but before he signed it.
That is one piece of good news for Sanders: With Democrats in unified control of government, his influence and power are magnified. More good news: His younger acolytes are less shy about wielding power.
At 79, Sanders has finally reached the apex of his political career. Yes, in 2016 and in last year’s presidential primary, he proved he could lead a movement, but never before has he had any sort of real legislative power and been in a position to use it. With Democrats in charge, Sanders is expected to become Senate budget chairman, one of the most influential positions in the chamber.
He has suggested he’ll liberally use the budget reconciliation process, a parliamentary trick that passes certain laws with only 51 votes, for sweeping proposals to undo the Trump tax cuts or even pass more healthcare reforms. (It was likewise used to pass key parts of Obamacare.)
But with the Senate party split at 50-50 and Democrats having the majority due to Vice President Kamala Harris’s status as a tiebreaking vote when needed, Sanders will still have to deal with centrists such as West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to pass just about anything. And Manchin’s desire to be a team player aside, if the Democrats lose his seat, it may be gone for a while, and Manchin’s voting record shows he knows this. He won’t be eager to face attack ads from Republicans in 2024 saying he was the one guy who made a left-wing economic transformation possible.
That’s where the acolytes come in. First, they are the future of the party, and likely its near future. Second, they have none of Sanders’s patience.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley took office after the 2018 midterm elections, with Ocasio-Cortez ousting in a Democratic primary Joe Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat in the House widely seen as a potential successor to Pelosi. In 2020, the playbook was repeated: Jamaal Bowman knocked off senior Democrat Eliot Engel, and Suraj Patel came within a few thousand votes of defeating Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Ocasio-Cortez won’t rule out her own primary challenge of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The younger corps of Democrats are nearly already in charge: During the 2020 presidential primaries, they backed ideas such as the Green New Deal while Pelosi counseled caution. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates ignored Pelosi and sided with those in and around “the Squad,” as a few of the young representatives are known. They were also vocal proponents of upping the stimulus payment amounts and openly snipe at more centrist members of their party. The Squad’s rhetoric on race relations has been echoed by Big Business and elementary school classrooms. The revolution arrived despite Sanders’s relatively abysmal primary showing. Ocasio-Cortez makes no effort to hide her disdain for Manchin. Democrats’ congressional leaders are generally close to Sanders in age, and the jockeying to replace them has commenced.
Sanders, then, is winning the long war not by being FDR but by being closer to Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s vice president and later a failed Progressive Party presidential candidate. A fervent backer of the New Deal and a robust welfare state, Wallace later fell into obscurity following outcry over his stated preference for reconciliation with the Soviet Union and acceptance of the American Communist Party’s endorsement of his presidential bid.
In 1942, Wallace gave his famous “The Price of Free World Victory” speech in New York City, where he outlined his egalitarian vision and the opportunities to rebuild the country after a victory against the Axis powers — not dissimilar to Sanders’s and his allies’ descriptions of a post-COVID-19 economy.
“And when the time of peace comes, the citizen will again have a duty; the consumer will have a duty — the supreme duty of sacrificing the lesser interest for the greater interest of the general welfare. Those who write the peace must think of the whole world,” Wallace said. “There can be no privileged peoples. We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis. And we cannot perpetuate economic warfare without planting the seeds of military warfare. We must use our power at the peace table to build an economic peace that is charitable and enduring.”
Wallace’s increasingly vocal radicalism got him dropped from the presidential ticket in 1944 in favor of Harry Truman. Toward the end of his life, Wallace saw his mixed legacy unfold in domestic politics, both in the passage of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs as well as the beginning of the Democratic Party crackup that would ultimately play out publicly.
By the late 1970s, a New Left had seemingly taken over the Democratic Party, plunging it into an electoral wilderness until Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. Wallace, dead by 1965, saw the party transform into his image even if Democratic leaders refused to admit it.
For decades, Democrats thought of Sanders as a modern-day Wallace — a popular man with devoted followers who, despite occasionally breaking from party orthodoxy and expressing quirky views about left-wing authoritarians, could ultimately be counted on to support Democrats, so much so that he earned the moniker “Assistant President” in the press.
Squad members are no one’s assistants. And just as Wallace’s principles beat out FDR’s politics in the long run, Sanders’s heirs are poised to be Biden’s, too.
Joseph Simonson is a Washington Examiner investigative reporter.
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