Although twice defeated in his bids to become Democratic presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders has achieved a level of political power that is second only to presidents’. The successful passage of a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, more than twice as large and more far reaching than the stimulus bill passed in 2009, is a triumph not just for President Joe Biden but also for Sanders. The size of the bill and its ambitious focus on reducing poverty bear his unmistakable stamp. Far from fading after defeat, Sanders has followed the trajectory of the late Ted Kennedy, whose failed presidential bid enhanced the national presence that made him a tribune in the Senate.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton said about Sanders, “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.” Asked about this statement in 2020, Clinton affirmed she still thought it was true. This is the standard centrist line on Sanders: that he’s a truculent spoiler with negligible accomplishments.
Clinton’s view was always unfair, since Sanders has throughout his career shown an ability to combine progressive advocacy with prudential deal making, as when he worked with the late John McCain to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But the stimulus bill shows in undeniable ways that Sanders is both a skilled parliamentarian and one of the most consequential ideological politicians in modern America. As the stimulus bill moved its way through Congress, Sanders played a brilliant game of holding the progressive wing of the party together while pushing the Biden administration to be as expansive as possible. There were, to be sure, disappointments such as the removal of the minimum wage hike. But even that proposal wasn’t definitively rejected by the Democrats but simply tabled for another day.
As the Los Angeles Times observes, “The longtime outsider, irritant of the Democratic and Republican establishments and cantankerous gadfly is proving shrewd at playing the inside game from his powerful new perch atop the Senate Budget Committee. His fingerprints are all over the historic $1.9-trillion relief package President Biden signed into law last week.”
The newspaper calls attention to the way Sanders served as the linchpin holding the Democrats together: “Sanders artfully navigated a high-stakes, high-wire act over the last several weeks, calming restive progressives who wanted more, fending off anxious moderates who wanted the price tag of the bill trimmed, and keeping the confidence of the Biden White House throughout.”
Writing in Politico, Sam Stein makes the revisionist case that Sanders is more powerful than even West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. As the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, Manchin has a negative veto power, which allows him to trim policy around the edges. But in terms of actually generating policy, Sanders is on top.
Sanders’ influence on the most ambitious piece of domestic legislation in a generation is evident in several places, particularly the guaranteed income program for children, the massive subsidies for people to buy health care, the sheer size of the $1.9 trillion measure and the centerpiece of it — direct checks to working Americans.
But the specifics of the law tell only part of the story. The calculus by which the legislation was crafted and passed — a belief that popular bills endure more than bipartisan ones — is quintessentially Sanders. And it raises a thought-provoking question: Has any elected official in American history had such a profound influence on a major political party without ever formally joining it.
Sanders’s larger success has been in changing the orientation of the party, making it much more willing to adopt bold economic policies.
Yet there are limits to Sanders’s power. Foreign policy, which got short shrift in the 2020 Democratic primary, is one area where Sanders has not been able to reorient the party. Although when Sanders gave up his run in 2020 he was promised that the Biden administration would take his counsel on both domestic and foreign policy, to date there has been little evidence that Biden has shifted at all in the realm of diplomacy. The new administration has disappointed progressives by being slow to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.
Significantly, Sanders’s longtime foreign policy adviser Matt Duss, who had been in conversation with the Biden administration for a possible State Department position, has decided to stay with the senator. As Jewish Currents notes, remaining on Sanders’s staff allows Duss to highlight progressive disagreements with the Biden administration.
According to Jewish Currents, “Just in the past week, Duss has publicly taken multiple positions at odds with the Biden administration on Twitter: on Israel’s failure to distribute Covid-19 vaccines in the West Bank, on holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and on calling for a more conciliatory US approach to Iran. It is unlikely he would have felt free to voice such positions while working at the State Department; by remaining in his current position, he retains a platform with which to dissent from the administration.”
Sanders is not quite an outsider turned insider. Rather, he’s half an insider and half an outsider. He has the president’s ear on domestic policy but not on foreign policy. Even as he is now at the very height of power, Sanders has one more problem to solve: how to retain his standing in the Democratic coalition while voicing necessary criticisms of foreign policy.
At age 79, Sanders shows no signs of slowing down or looking for an exit ramp. The open question is whether he can replicate his great success in domestic policy and push the Democrats to the left on foreign policy.