Bernie Sanders moves into leadership vacuum

By Carl P. Leubsdorf

The Dallas Morning News

The 2016 presidential nominating race was barely over, and already Bernie Sanders was looking ahead.

Days before the Democratic National Convention formally nominated Hillary Clinton, the Vermont senator transformed his 2016 campaign organization into Our Revolution to promote his progressive proposals, back like-minded candidates and, in essence, take over the Democratic Party.

“We have begun a political revolution to transform America, and that revolution, our revolution, continues,” Sanders told the convention, endorsing Clinton but making clear his quest to remake the Democratic Party would continue, regardless of the outcome.

Nine months later, he is well on his way to succeeding. Though his choice for party chairman narrowly lost, Sanders has moved into the leadership vacuum after Clinton’s defeat to emerge as a leading national voice against President Donald Trump.

This week, the party chair he opposed, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, is joining with the Vermont senator on a second “come together and fight back” tour of “red” and “purple” states. It includes a stop Thursday in Grand Prairie, where Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the deputy chairman and a Sanders ally, will represent Perez.

The goal, Sanders said Sunday on CNN, is to “see that the Democratic party becomes a 50-state party, a bottom-up grassroots party that is prepared to stand up to the big money interests.”

The tour, similar to one last month, illustrates the degree to which the party’s national leadership is latching onto his economic message. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others, have joined Sanders in rallies on issues from health care to immigration.

Meanwhile, in state after state, the Sanders forces are moving either to take over the existing party machinery or to set up their own state or even county organizations. Details are a bit hazy since Our Revolution was created as a nonprofit social welfare organization, exempt from federal disclosure rules for political action committees.

It’s also been playing an active role in the post-2016 electoral landscape. The Democrat who ran an unexpectedly close race in last week’s Kansas special congressional election was a Sanders backer, as is Rob Quist, seeking Montana’s lone House seat May 25.

In perhaps the biggest test for Sanders’ continuing clout, he is supporting Tom Perriello, the former congressman who is challenging Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia. A Perriello victory in the June 13 primary — and November’s general election — would be a major boost for the Sanders wing and a setback for outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, one of the leaders of the party establishment that backed Clinton last year.

All of this means the political machine being created by the Independent Vermont senator (still not a registered Democrat) could become a strong underpinning if he decides, at age 78, to undertake a second presidential bid in 2020.

Sanders himself says it’s too early to speculate about that. But an announcement this week disclosed he’ll appear in July at the Citizens for Community Improvement’s “action convention” in Iowa, the first caucus state.

He is not the only Democrat getting into position to challenge an expected Trump re-election bid. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has made repeated visits to Iowa, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has reportedly been lining up Clinton money people, and former Vice President Joe Biden will address a New Hampshire Democratic dinner next week.

And even if Sanders doesn’t run, his organization could be an enormous asset to whomever he backed, especially if Trump’s unpopularity continues and inspires a large Democratic field.

The senator’s growing influence extends beyond the structural aspects of politics to support for his ideas.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently won approval of a higher education plan similar to the proposal Sanders proposed and Clinton endorsed. It provides free tuition at community and public colleges for fulltime students with family annual incomes up to $125,000, provided they agree to stay and work in the state afterwards.

And even some conservative columnists have suggested Trump’s inability to win approval of legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act will lead inevitably to a single payer plan similar to Sanders’ proposal to expand Medicare for all Americans, regardless of age.

“A broad national consensus is developing that health care is indeed a right,” Charles Krauthammer wrote last month in The Washington Post, adding that, “As Obamacare continues to unravel, it won’t take much for Democrats to abandon that Rube Goldberg wreckage and go for the simplicity and the universality of Medicare-for-all.”

Bernie Sanders may have lost in 2016, but he’s more of a factor for the Democratic Party now than the winner has been.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News and a frequent columnist. Readers may email him at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.