Politics & Policy

The Beginning of Bernie’s End

Sen. Bernie Sanders
If the Vermont senator’s recent polling slide is a sign of things to come, it’s worth pausing to consider the profound effect he’s had on his party.

Elizabeth Warren is rising in the polls. In a recent Quinnipiac survey, she even topped Joe Biden. In the past month, she has held steady at 23 percent in an average of the polls that qualify a candidate for the debate stage, reflecting a five-point climb after the last debate, and putting her just a few ticks behind Biden.

Parallel with Warren’s rise is another phenomenon: Bernie Sanders is sinking, slowly.

For much of the race so far, there has been a debate about whether Warren or Sanders would begin consolidating support among voters in the social-democratic “lane” that stood the best chance of producing a viable rival to Biden. We may now be seeing the first signs of an answer to that question. As Biden has come down a little of late, Sanders has not reaped the benefits. He has begun to slide even in polls of New Hampshire, where the recognition he earned in 2016 and his prominence as a senator from neighboring Vermont should be a boon to his chances.

That Sanders is tumbling this early is a very distressing sign for his campaign. But if this is the beginning of the end for him, it’s not too early to note that he has had a profound effect on our politics.

Consider that in 2008, when there was a crowd of Democratic candidates, merely suggesting the addition of a “public option” health-insurance plan was still considered a risky step to the left, the land of Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. Now, a majority of Democratic candidates for president support some version of “Medicare for All,” the policy that Sanders memorably championed.

In fact, one could say that Sanders himself represented a delayed Democratic backlash to the financial crisis that discredited so many elites. His 2016 candidacy was the Tea Party and the Trump movement of the left, the throbbing middle finger hurled at a failed establishment.

He also has made the most convincing bid to come up with a new foreign-policy paradigm for his party, trying to connect the cause of social-democratic politics to anti-authoritarianism. It’s not enough to convince a conservative like me, of course. But it cleverly unites natural Sanders allies on one side and conservative nationalists on the other one.

Even if his campaign goes into slow fade, Sanders has dramatically changed the Democratic party. By being a consistent champion of the social-democratic vision that has defined his career, and then challenging the corrupt establishment candidacy of Hillary Clinton, he managed to excite left-wing activists and pull the party in his direction. This was helped by the fact that Clinton lost, giving his candidacy a doomed “what if” romance it might not otherwise have. “Bernie would have won” will be a war cry forever on the left. His candidacy is a powerful testament to the way democratic politics is supposed to work.

For better or worse, we may look back soon and say that he was the morning star of Warren-style government.

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