Saturday, March 07, 2020

Bernie Sanders Has Already Won the Democratic Primary: He set the tone, determined the issues and tugged the party toward him. (Frank Bruni, NY Times)


Bernie Sanders Has Already Won the Democratic Primary

He set the tone, determined the issues and tugged the party toward him.
Opinion Columnist
Credit...Illustration by Ben Wiseman; Photograph by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images
At a debate last month, Bernie Sanders’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination were asked if they were concerned about the party possibly graduating a democratic socialist to the general election. The only ones who made their worry perfectly clear were Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar.
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That’s when Sanders won the Democratic primary.
At debates before then, some candidates went out of their way to describe what they’d accomplished or were proposing as “progressive,” especially if they were being maligned as (gulp) moderates.
“Look, we all have big progressive plans,” Biden said, as if to reassure Democratic voters. Michael Bennet touted bipartisan immigration legislation that he helped to write as “the most progressive DREAM Act” ever put together.
That’s when Sanders won the Democratic primary.
He won it when his rivals talked more about whether Medicare for All could ever get through Congress than about whether such a huge expansion of the federal government was a good idea in the first place. He won it when they competed to throw many more trillions than the next candidate at climate change. He won it when the disagreement became not about free tuition at public colleges but about the eligibility of students from families above a certain income level.

He and his supporters shouldn’t feel defeated after Super Tuesday. They should take a bow.

Sanders had a disappointing showing, yes, and Biden emerged as the likeliest Democratic nominee. That prompted lamentations from Sanders’s fans that the status quo was prevailing, the revolution was being dashed and the Democratic Party was mired in squishy moderation.

Nonsense. In the context of previous presidential elections, Biden isn’t so very moderate. Nor are Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg or other Democratic aspirants lumped in that category. They have carved out positions to the left of the party’s nominees over the past two decades, including the most recent three: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Kerry.

And you know who gets the most credit for that? Sanders. The runner-up is Elizabeth Warren, who remains in the race spiritually if not physically, having also planted and cultivated ideas that spread far beyond her. Mike Bloomberg’s advocacy of a 5 percent surtax on incomes of over $5 million annually spoke to the pressure that her signature “wealth tax” put on Democrats to address how they would rein in huge fortunes. There was more attention to that issue in this Democratic primary than in primaries past.

While Sanders’s fellow candidates didn’t parrot his vocabulary and denounce “oligarchs” and “oligarchy,” they spoke expansively about gross income inequality and the need to tackle it. That largely reflected how wealth had been concentrated over recent decades. But it owed something, too, to Sanders’s right and righteous demand that America have this conversation

Biden’s proposed tax increases of about $3.4 trillion over a decade are more than double what Clinton was advocating in 2016, while Buttigieg’s were more than quadruple. How is that moderate?

The scare that Sanders put into Clinton four years ago and the organization that he built have transformed the party, moving it even further left than the questionable electoral successes of his movement justify. Although there is scant evidence in recent elections that a Democrat running on Sanders’s platform can win anywhere but in decidedly blue districts and states, that platform colored the Democratic primary in a bold and indelible way. Candidates disrespected it at their peril.

As the Democratic race narrowed to about half a dozen plausible contenders, Klobuchar asserted herself — and was frequently characterized as — a sort of common-sense centrist. But her actual positions and proposals told a different story. As my fellow Times Op-Ed columnist David Leonhardt recently wrote: “She wants to raise taxes on the rich, break up monopolies, vastly expand Medicare, fight climate change, admit more refugees, allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens, ban assault weapons and require universal background checks. A Klobuchar administration would probably be well to the left of the Obama administration.” It would be closer to Sanders territory.

“All the lead contenders are running on the most progressive agendas to ever dominate a Democratic primary,” wrote Vox’s Ezra Klein and Roge Karma late last year. They noted that this primary’s moderates would have been considered leftists in the recent past. “As a result,” they added, “if Biden or Buttigieg actually win the nomination, they will be running on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in history.”

Buttigieg was designated a moderate despite his support for abolishing the Electoral College and expanding the Supreme Court, both of which would be profound changes in American politics and governance.

Biden was designated a moderate despite declaring that the Equality Act, which would offer sweeping federal protection against discrimination for L.G.B.T.Q. people, didn’t merely have his support; it would be his top legislative priority. He was designated a moderate despite being among the 10 candidates at a Democratic debate early on who all raised their hands when asked if they supported extending health care benefits to undocumented immigrants.
He was designated a moderate despite calling for an expansion of Obamacare — including the addition of a Medicare-like public insurance option — that would cost $750 billion over a decade; despite his desire to spend another $750 billion on education; despite a $1.7 trillion climate plan.

All that spending: I’m struck by how infrequently and wanly Democratic candidates have mentioned fiscal responsibility, deficits or debt. In prior elections, candidates talked some about that to avoid being tagged as naïvely starry-eyed liberals. But the sky was the limit this time around. Sure, Sanders’s rivals ultimately grilled him on his math, suggesting that his particular plans were ruinously lavish. But enormous spending as an idea was seldom if ever under attack. In fact, it was in vogue.
And Sanders’s grilling was a long time coming. The wonder of most of the debates was how carefully his competitors tiptoed around him, acutely conscious of the moral force that he had come to wield in the party and the passion of his supporters, whom they didn’t want to alienate. He became the enemy that no Democrat wanted to have.
On the day after Super Tuesday, when Biden won 10 of 14 states, including a few where Sanders had beaten Clinton in the 2016 primary, Sanders asked, “Does anyone seriously believe that a president backed by the corporate world is going to bring about the changes in this country that working families and the middle class and lower-income people desperately want?”
Well, yeah, I do. Biden won’t make all of those changes, and they may be more restrained than Sanders would like or than the situation demands. The arc of history bends toward justice — it doesn’t hurtle there.
But Biden’s backing extends well beyond corporations. His proposals demonstrate concern for those working families. And his goals echo Sanders’s goals, for one reason above all others. Sanders already won.

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