Many top Democrats are furious that Bernie Sanders appears to be running for president again, or at least planning to drag out his decision long enough to freeze the race around him.
He’s frustrating alumni of his 2016 campaign, some of whom would like him to run again, , by showing no interest in raising early money or locking down lower level staff — moves they say would indicate he recognizes the need for a different kind of campaign operation in 2020. Outside of his tighter-than-ever inner circle, friends and staffers who’d be happy to back him again say they rarely, if ever, speak to Sanders these days.
Sanders hasn’t made any decision, and he tends to dismiss the discussion about 2020 as dumb. He hasn’t even fully committed to running for re-election to the Senate next year.
Weighing on him throughout it all and clouding his outlook, people close to him say, is the toll on his family from the ongoing FBI investigation into potential bank fraud at the small Vermont college where his wife was the president.
But the senator, who’ll be 79 the next time the New Hampshire primary rolls around, is continuing to put himself at the center of the conversation. He’s introduced a Medicare-for-all bill this week that he hopes will force others to sign on. He’s joining Ohio Gov. John Kasich for a CNN town hall tonight that’s being held on the evening of the Center for American Progress forward-looking Ideas Conference — an event Sanders wasn’t invited to. Some of his moves, like collecting names and email addresses via RSVPs to his “unity tour” with new Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez for his Friends of Bernie Sanders group — a mailing list the DNC itself won’t have any access to — have alienated his allies on the left.
“The fact that Tom Perez has given Sanders a platform without Sanders genuinely agreeing to work toward ‘unity’ has made a mockery of the whole process and literally divided the party more than it was before the tour began. It has been a disaster,” said Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the influential liberal Daily Kos site. “Yes, Perez and company are clearly afraid of Sanders and his followers, but letting Sanders make a mockery of the party doesn’t exactly help it build in the long haul.”
“He’s a constant reminder. He allows the healing that needs to take place to not take place,” said one longtime senior party official, who like others, remains too worried about appearing to oppose Sanders to speak on the record.
Former DNC chair Donna Brazile warned party leaders against relying on Sanders, unless they’re willing to give in on opening the party to more independents like he wants.
“He’s not someone who we should go to, to build or rebuild or expand our party unless he’s willing,” she said.
Sanders, who has re-registered as an independent and made a point of asserting that independence while he was on tour with Perez, is nonetheless the most popular Democrat and the most popular active politician in the country. He’s savoring it, whether in the stops he’s planning to make this weekend in Montana for Democratic House candidate Rob Quist, or his trip to Iowa, home of the caucuses he nearly won, on July 15 for the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement’s “action convention.”
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager and now the president of his Our Revolution group, still speaks with the senator all the time. He dismissed any speculation about 2020 as ridiculously early, but added that the door is wide open, and said those who worry about how he might tilt the party need to wake up.
“What is their goal, some kind of defense of the Democratic Party’s newfound centrism? If that’s what they’re looking to do, I guess that they would consider it a disaster. If they want to win the White House, I think it would be a good thing,” Weaver said.
That’s a similar message to the one Weaver delivered to a private caucus meeting of Senate Democrats early this year, when he warned those up for re-election in 2018 against centrism, raising eyebrows in the room, according to Democrats present for the presentation.
But at a time other — and far less famous — potential 2020 contenders are speaking with operatives about what their campaigns might look like and gathering allies by raising money for colleagues, Sanders’ push is far more oriented toward defining Democrats’ message in public.
In Congress, a number of up-and-comers say they’re glad to see Sanders pushing the party toward an economic focus, and away from the social issues of Hillary Clinton’s failed “Stronger Together.” Those voices, and the people who show up by the thousands still at Sanders’ stops around the country, are the ones the gripers should be focused on, his supporters say — not nursing old grudges or complaining that Sanders would torpedo their chances.
Starting with healthcare-focused rallies in January that he encouraged Senate Democratic leaders to do more widely, Sanders continues traveling the country. He’s also using his newfound celebrity to elevate local-level fights like a unionization drive in Mississippi and the candidacy of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello, whose effort is being managed by one of his former top staffers.
Touring the country with Perez, Sanders sought to stamp his economic populism on the head of the DNC. But people familiar with the arrangement said he also spent much of the time traveling with the party chair on their private Gulfstream jet getting to learn about Perez’s personal history, which he hadn’t bothered to read up on earlier.
“For years, our fellow activists on the left have said we need an antidote to the tea party. This is what an antidote to the tea party looks like,” said former NAACP President Ben Jealous — an Our Revolution board member — at the group’s meeting in Maryland last month.
Sanders loyalists say they’re eager to stir up the internal fight that they say the party needs to have. To Sanders, it’s the natural next step in his pursuit of the 40-year-old goal of upending the established political system, which they see millions of voters having supported last year. And each passing day of the Trump administration, along with the Democrats’ resistance, has vindicated his belief that substantive change can come when masses rise up.
“Our party is divided into various wings, and Bernie clearly represents one of those wings. It is a progressive, activist, economic populist wing to the party,” said Mark Longabaugh, one of the top strategists for the 2016 campaign, who said he’s among those who’d be ready to sign up again. “The rest of the party still hasn’t wrapped its mind around it.”
Longabaugh, who very early into Sanders’ last run drew up the plan that mapped a path through New Hampshire, Minnesota, a surprise Michigan win and overpowering Clinton in the caucus states, said he hasn’t written anything yet for 2020.
“First of all, you have to confess we’re not together. You can have a unity tour until the cows come home, but there’s a divide in the party,” said former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, another Our Revolution board member.
Sanders sees everything he’s doing as maximizing his sway in the Senate, using the speculation to build his center of gravity. To the extent he has thought about 2020, he hasn’t gotten into how different the race would likely be if it’s a packed field, rather than the binary choice of 2016.
If he were to run again, he would almost certainly be by far the most famous entrant, dominating the left and sucking up far more television coverage than he did before. But he would also have four years’ worth of new baggage to contend with, including barbs from Clinton allies who still quietly blame him for her loss.
Staffers and aides are willing to give him time, for now. But they worry that Sanders won’t decide until too late for many of them to be able to go to other campaigns if he sits 2020 out, and that frustrates them. They worry that he hasn’t processed what really running again would entail, and is convinced it would be lightning in a bottle again.
“From the senior leadership on down, one of the biggest problems we faced was not enough middle management who knew that and now he has a real opportunity to lock those people down now, whether through Our Revolution or his Senate campaign, and there doesn’t appear to be any effort to do that,” said one member of his 2016 campaign.
If he doesn’t run, progressives are hoping he doesn’t turn the Democratic primary race into a two-year long audition for his seal of approval.
“Having that dangling question out there can be a little frustrating,” said one Democratic Senate staffer. “If he’s not going to wind up doing it, is there an issue of an heir apparent, or is it just, ‘This is my thing, I’ve built this, I take it with me.’ That’s kind of disrespectful to the cause that rallied around him.
“Every once in a while you realize that he is in fact an independent, with the good and the bad that comes with it,” the staffer added.
“I would quote Robert Frost,” said Larry Cohen, the chairman of Our Revolution’s board and one of the DNC Unity Commission leaders, referring to Sanders’ attempt to remake the party in his image. “We have miles to go before we sleep.”