In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s loss to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, some people argued that, as Vanity Fair put it, he “won in the end” because his race had “a profound, and lasting, effect on his party.” This was not a fanciful idea. The Vermont senator’s “revolution” had succeeded beyond progressives’ wildest expectations, pushing the party leftward on health care, climate change, economic redistribution, and foreign policy. Since Barack Obama’s ascendance, no other politician has had such a deep influence on the direction of the Democratic Party—except perhaps the sitting president.
And yet, as Sanders takes steps toward a second run for the Democratic nomination, many think that he has lost his political momentum. “I don’t see a lot of lasting energy for Bernie,” Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of Daily Kos, told The Boston Globe. “It’s different from last time when he was the alternative to an unfortunately flawed front-runner, and there were just two of them. Right now, the mantle of ‘progressive’ can be carried by any number of candidates and potential candidates.”
Sanders, this line of thinking goes, is “a victim of his own success”: Yes, he moved the Democratic Party leftward, but he’s been neutered by younger, more broadly appealing candidates who are aping the ideas he popularized. So Sanders allegedly can’t count on his army of supporters to turn out in droves a second time, or even necessarily his staff. “The reluctance of former aides to embrace another campaign reflects what’s expected to be a sprawling field of Democrats stampeding left—unlike the binary Hillary or Bernie choice during most of the Democratic primary two years ago,” Politico reported in December.
Yes, Sanders will face more challenges in 2020 than he did in 2016, when the Democratic Party cleared the lane for Clinton, leaving him as the only true alternative. When the primary begins in earnest later this year, there may be as many as three dozen challengers, many (perhaps most) of whom will support Sanders’s key promise, Medicare for All. But the argument that Sanders has fundamentally lost his political appeal understates the differences between him and the emerging Democratic field.
No one questions that Sanders demolished the conventional wisdom in 2016. He was an undecorated independent senator from an extremely liberal state who only identified as a Democrat to run for president, and moreover described himself as a democratic socialist. Yet he forced the prematurely anointed Clinton, around whom the entire party establishment had coalesced years prior, to campaign like hell until the very end.
Nonetheless, for weeks now, outlets have been doubting the viability of a second Sanders bid for president. “Instead of expanding his nucleus of support, the fashion of most repeat candidates,” Jonathan Martin and Sydney Ember wrote in The New York Times, “the Vermont senator is struggling to retain even what he garnered two years ago, when he was far less of a political star than he is today.” By way of evidence, the article noted that some of Sanders’s supporters in Congress “won’t commit to backing him if he runs for president again—and two may join the 2020 race themselves. A handful of former aides might work for other candidates. And Bernie Sanders’s initial standing in Iowa polls is well below the 49.6 percent he captured in nearly defeating Hillary Clinton there in 2016.”
New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore gave several reasons Sanders “has lost his 2016 mojo,” including: his support was inflated by a thin field and resistance to a Clinton coronation; his policy positions have been co-opted by other Democrats who aspire to the presidency; he’s old; he’s a white man. “If Bernie Sanders has to fight to hold onto the mantle of progressive leadership, his time has surely past,” Kilgore wrote.
And on Monday, The Boston Globe noted Sanders’s declining support and waffling from many of his 2016 backers. “I’m torn ... because I was in the midst of the campaign with Bernie, but I think the people who look at that campaign need to understand the context is different,” Jonathan Tsini, author of The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America told the Globe. Other 2016 backers have begged Sanders to back off, for reasons ranging from his age to the need for new blood to his importance in leading a democratic socialist movement.
It’s undoubtedly true that the 2020 field will be much more crowded, especially on the left wing. When his long shot campaign began in 2015, Sanders was on an island, policy-wise, advocating for socialized medicine, a retreat from imperialism, and an activist response to economic problems. Over the last two years, the policies he advocated have become widely popular with Democrats and even been embraced by a number of party leaders, including several 2020 contenders.
A 2020 Sanders campaign, then, theoretically would lack both the novelty of his surprise showing in 2016 and the distinctiveness of his positions within the Democratic field. There will be other formidable challengers representing the left, like Elizabeth Warren, as well as a number of more establishment candidates, like Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, who support policies Sanders popularized such as Medicare for All and a $15 national minimum wage.
But just because the space is more crowded doesn’t mean that Sanders doesn’t have something unique to offer. Julian Castro’s 2020 announcement speech on Saturday is a case in point. He expressed support for Medicare for All, universal pre-K, and the Paris agreement, while pledging to “not take a dime” in PAC money. But the speech itself was not exactly a Sanders-esque jeremiad against a rigged system. At times, he sounded like a second-rate motivational speaker. “Today,” he said, “we live in a world in which brainpower is the new currency of success.”
Sanders is hardly alone in having clear weaknesses as a Democratic candidate. Voters remain angry that the economy disproportionately benefits a tiny sliver of Americans; if anything, that feeling has been exacerbated by Donald Trump’s kleptocratic administration, which, with the help of a Republican Congress, redistributed $1.5 trillion in taxpayer money to corporations and the wealthy. And yet, some in the likely Democratic field—including Harris, Gillibrand, and Cory Booker—have begun courting Wall Street. This isn’t necessarily prohibitive, but it lacks the purity of Sanders’s stance.
Even Warren, the candidate who most closely resembles Sanders, has stark differences. As David Dayen argued in The New Republic in October, they represent opposite approaches to the organization of the economy: “Warren wants to organize markets to benefit workers and consumers, while Sanders wants to overhaul those markets, taking the private sector out of it.” Finally, while a new generation has taken the spotlight in recent months, rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are too young to run, meaning that what could be termed “the Sanders lane” will still be occupied by a single candidate.
Despite claims of the Sanders movement’s waffling momentum, he is still an enormously popular politician. Recent polling, both national and in Iowa, suggests that he is a frontrunner, trailing only Joe Biden. (Sanders is the second choice among Biden supporters; interestingly, despite his long history of favors for the financial industry, Biden is the second choice among Sanders supporters.) It seems possible that it’s Sanders continued popularity—and the role that some believe he played in Clinton’s defeat—that concerns figures, like Moulitsas, who are questioning his electability.
There are legitimate arguments for Sanders to sit this one out. His age is a serious concern—he’ll be 79 on inauguration day—though that’s also true of the 76-year-old Biden. Sanders benefited enormously from not being taken seriously in 2016; Clinton rarely attacked him, while the press, “Bernie Bro” takes aside, went relatively easy on him. That won’t be the case in 2020, especially with an emerging scandal from the 2016 primary: a number of former staffers have alleged lately that the campaign did not do enough to stop sexual harassment.
But it’s simply wrong that Sanders can no longer stand out in a race for the Democratic nomination. While it’s true that most of the 2020 candidates will claim the mantle of progressivism, none exemplifies it quite like he does. In his ideology as well as his personality, Sanders still occupies a singular place in American politics. Only people who are nervous about that enduring fact would argue that it’s a compelling reason for him not to seek the highest office in the land.