Escalating tensions and an intensifying primary race are no surprise now that the race pits Sanders squarely against Clinton in an otherwise empty field. (Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley dropped out of the race after barely registering in the vote count at Monday’s Iowa caucuses.) It was inevitable that the rivalry would ramp up as the race dragged on. But that inevitability became a certainty after Sanders’s strong showing in Iowa and massive fundraising hauls.
Still, promoting progressivism is a marked contrast with Sanders’s recent attempts to argue that he is highly electable, a claim the Vermont senator drove home in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. “If people are concerned about electability—and Democrats should be very concerned because we certainly don’t want to see some right-wing extremist in the White House—Bernie Sanders is the candidate,” Sanders told ABC in January. Now, Sanders seems to favor flaunting his far-left credentials over a general-election appeal. That may be an attempt by Sanders to make in-roads with Democratic voters after, as my colleague Ron Brownstein points out, “He faced gaping deficits in Iowa among minorities, and also among all voters who identified as Democrats.” Sanders may hope to appeal to Democratic voters by casting himself as the real progressive in the race. Running too far to the left, though, could turn off the kind of Independent voters who Sanders won over in Iowa. If you can’t be a moderate and also a progressive, can you be a progressive and also electable?
For Sanders, that’s just one risk he is taking in attempting to define progressive politics. By claiming that an individual cannot be both progressive and moderate Sanders also opens himself up to criticism that he too fails that litmus test. Despite a history of taking far-left stands, Sanders has at times been at odds with progressive voters over issues such as gun control. After Sanders suggested that Clinton fails to qualify as a progressive, reporters quickly unearthed a quote from Sanders’s campaign manager calling the senator “very moderate” on gun control. And Clinton allies, of course, were just as quick to pounce on the comment as proof that Sanders does not pass his own ideological purity test.
Setting aside the vulnerabilities the attack creates for Sanders, there is a bigger question of whether it is helpful to progressive politics writ large for a presidential contender to define the progressive label as inherently in opposition to moderation. The political left frequently laments that it has become all too easy for politicians to pay lip service to progressive ideals while simultaneously selling those ideals out in the service of pragmatism. Those activists may find it useful to point to Sanders’s definition as a way of pressuring elected officials who lay claim to the label to hew more closely to their agenda. But there is also a danger in attempting to constrain the meaning of progressivism.