For an example of how far leftward the Democratic Party has drifted in the last two decades, look no further than Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont emerging as the progressive icon who can capture the spirit of Elizabeth Warren in the body of a rumpled, crotchety old white man. Indeed, it's awfully telling that Hillary Clinton's main opponent for the Democratic nomination is a 73-year-old self-proclaimed socialist.
Make no mistake: Sanders is not a "liberal purist," as The New York Times referred to him in its Burlington dispatch—he's further left than that. He's never even been a Democrat, and for much of his congressional career was regarded as a radical curiosity. In his presidential kickoff, he called for a "political revolution" against the billionaire class, shades of Marxist rhetoric therein. His revolutionary instincts extend to foreign policy: For his honeymoon in 1988, he vacationed in the totalitarian Soviet Union, and the next year he traveled to Cuba in hopes of meeting Fidel Castro.
But it's Sanders, and not a more conventionally liberal candidate like former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who's capturing the enthusiasm of the progressive grassroots. Last week's Quinnipiac poll found him polling at 15 percent—good for a comfortable second place in the Democratic field, well ahead of Vice President Joe Biden (at 9 percent) and O'Malley (only at 1 percent). Among the most liberal Democrats, he polled at 28 percent, with Biden trailing him by 24 points in a hypothetical matchup.
But Sanders' early prominence is not a reflection of Sanders himself. Instead, he's serving as the avatar for the emboldened attitude of the party's progressive wing.
In the past, the notion of an unreconstructed socialist winning widespread support—even as a protest candidate—would have been fanciful within the Democratic Party. The closest recent parallel to Sanders is Dennis Kucinich, who tallied less than 4 percent of the total primary vote in 2004. Ralph Nader's high-water mark was in 2000, when his 2.7 percent third-party tally was nonetheless enough to spoil Al Gore's hopes for the presidency. Other progressive insurgents within the party, from Vermont's own Howard Dean to Bill Bradley to Gary Hart, were squarely within the party's mainstream—even if they stood on the leftward side of it.
The fact that Sanders is now considered part of the Democratic Party at all says as much about the party's evolution as it does about his viability as a nominee. His railing against the wealthy fell out of favor with Democrats during Bill Clinton's administration, but has made a furious comeback thanks to the recession and Elizabeth Warren's relentless focus on income inequality. Polling shows support for free trade is actually on the rise, but an energized base views such deals as threatening to workers, at home and abroad. Sanders was an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war when it divided the party; now antipathy towards military intervention is de rigueur among Democrats.
Like the tea-party stirrings among Republicans in 2009, the Sanders boomlet is a sign that liberal activists are getting restless, and looking for a fight. For the first time, congressional Democrats have shown a willingness to torpedo an important presidential initiative to placate the base. Organized labor is threatening to challenge vulnerable moderate Democrats in primaries if they vote for the president's fast-track trade authority. One of the most pugilistic progressives in Congress is getting closer to a Senate bid, even though it could endanger the Democrats' prospects for a Senate majority in 2016. The newly-aggressive grassroots are letting their ideology blind them to the political realities of the moment.
It's no coincidence that Hillary Clinton has tacked left on every issue of consequence, even though she doesn't need to worry about winning the Democratic presidential nomination. In the past year, she's backtracked on supporting free trade deals, run to President Obama's left on immigration, and offered no support to her party's hawks in skeptically viewing the possible nuclear deal with Iran. On all these issues, she's risking general-election support catering to a constituency that doesn't seem all that threatening. Far from running on the warm memories of her husband's presidency, she's implicitly rebuking much of his legacy.
This is the real threat that Sanders poses to Clinton—not as a candidate, but as a sign that the Democrats' version of the tea party is ascendant at the worst possible time. By nonideological standards, Sanders is a weak challenger; he's got an unhealthy mix of Donald Trump's ego and Michele Bachmann's bombast. He's won statewide office in Vermont, the most liberal state in the country, with a population smaller than Bachmann's old congressional district.
But Sanders is poised to play the same role as Mitt Romney's 2012 GOP tormentors, a motley cast of characters who stood no chance of winning the nomination but gradually pushed Romney to the right. After all, Romney's infamous line about "self-deportation" was a reaction to the fear that he was vulnerable on his right flank from the likes of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
For all their differences, Clinton has a political tin ear similar to Romney's, and she is already worried about shoring up her left flank at the possible expense of essential support from the political center. It's hard to imagine she could be threatened by Bernie Sanders. But she's clearly spooked by the notion that a sizable chunk of her party is a lot closer to his views than she would have imagined when she was last in the White House.
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