Not too long ago, the conventional wisdom in mainstream Democratic circles was that Bernie Sanders was finished. He was too old and too stubborn; he reminded voters too strongly of an election they’d all like to forget. Sanders may have shocked observers (to say nothing of Hillary Clinton’s campaign) in 2016, but he was now yesterday’s news. A crowded field of nominees, moreover, had adopted the Vermont senator’s ideological playbook, making him just one of many candidates advocating for policies like Medicare for All and free college.
Today, however, Sanders is the Democratic frontrunner, leading all candidates in fundraising and trailing only an undeclared and hobbled Joe Biden in the polls—and Sanders has edged into the lead in at least one tracker. Facing Donald Trump in a general election and entering the White House in January of 2021 both seem increasingly possible, maybe even probable. “So far, the 2020 election is playing out exactly as Bernie Sanders had hoped,” The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote on Wednesday. “And that has Sanders thinking with growing seriousness that this could very well end with his election as president.”
His opponents, many of whom are still stewing over the 2016 election, are also thinking about the growing possibility that Sanders wins the Democratic nomination. “From canapé-filled fundraisers on the coasts to the cloakrooms of Washington, mainstream Democrats are increasingly worried that their effort to defeat President Trump in 2020 could be complicated by Mr. Sanders in a political scenario all too reminiscent of how Mr. Trump himself seized the Republican nomination in 2016,” wrote The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin on Monday in a survey of the “Stop Sanders” movement’s developing strategy for halting the 77-year-old’s momentum.
But the comparisons to Donald Trump’s insurgent 2016 campaign are limited at best and facile at worst. Sanders’s most vocal opponents in the party are an assemblage of establishmentarians and familiar Beltway hands, none of whom speak for a political constituency of any size or significance. Moreover, far from hurting Sanders, this impotent assault is self-defeating, fueling the narrative that party gatekeepers want, at all costs, to keep a political revolution from taking over the Democratic Party.
There is undoubtedly an ideological component of the anti-Sanders wing of the party that is often framed in practical terms. Attacks on Sanders (and other high-profile Democrats like Rep. Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez) often contend that left-wing goals like socialized medicine will be an electoral albatross, dooming the party to failure in battleground states. These arguments are rarely presented in policy terms, but it’s easy to draw a line between an opposition to Sanders rooted in the Democratic Party’s donor class and Sanders’s high-tax proposals and class-war rhetoric.
While there’s a growing backlist of articles detailing the resistance within Democratic fundraising circles, most of the criticisms of Sanders center around the question of “electability.” Media Matters founder David Brock told Politico last month that he believed that Sanders would struggle to unite the Democratic Party’s many unruly factions and that his sizable war chest would make it easy for him to stay in the race, even if there were little chance he could win. Former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill echoed this sentiment to the Times, saying, “One thing we have now that we didn’t in ’16 is the uniting force of Trump. There will be tremendous pressure on Bernie and his followers to fall in line because of what Trump represents.”
This is a rather strange line of attack nearly ten months out from the first Democratic primary. There is no reason to worry about Bernie Sanders staying in the 2020 race for too long at this point. But it is nevertheless a telling obsession, one that points to the lingering resentment felt toward Sanders among Clinton allies over the perception that the insurgent candidate didn’t concede the 2016 nomination quickly enough—a choice some believe weakened Clinton’s chances in the general election. (It’s worth noting, however, that more voters went from Clinton to John McCain in 2008 than did from Sanders to Trump in 2016.)
It is that three-year hangover that now has Beltway veterans worried the current party dynamic will cause the same headaches, and that Sanders, once again, will cost the Democrats the White House. The only way to prevent that from happening, in their estimation, is to do everything in their power to stop Sanders now.
To some, the “Stop Sanders” framing may recall the Never Trump movement that emerged in 2016. But that’s silly on its face. Though hilariously ineffective, that group included a number of significant public figures and politicians, including former presidents, sitting senators, and pundits. The Stop Sanders movement, to the extent that it exists at all, is made up of donors and diehard Clinton supporters who are unwilling to put the 2016 primary behind them.
One thing the two groups have in common, however, is a shared sense of futility. Sanders has transformed attacks from the liberal policy advocacy organization Center for American Progress—run by Clinton loyalist Neera Tanden—and Brock into a fundraising bonanza. Fights with the Democratic establishment only bolster Sanders’s credibility with his base—along with the sense that the party is out to kneecap his campaign once again. As Dovere pointed out on Monday, this creates a kind of virtuous cycle for the Sanders campaign: “He’s eagerly gotten into fights, like one over the weekend with the Center for American Progress.... And then he’s fundraised by citing the fights as evidence of resistance to the revolution he’s promising.”
Sanders’s opponents also recognize their approach is backfiring. “I feel like everything we are doing is playing into his hands,” Obama 2012 finance director Rufos Gifford told The New York Times.
There’s another possible, if unintended, effect of the growing challenges to Sanders from Democratic establishment circles, however. Trump’s best chance at victory doesn’t come from a democratic socialist claiming the nomination, but from a third-party candidate splitting the vote. Claims from Democratic stalwarts that Sanders can’t unseat the president are fool’s gold to self-funding candidates like Howard Schultz, who argues that a majority of voters are clamoring for a centrist, corporate candidate. If anyone is splitting the party and undercutting Democrats’ chances, if anyone is paving the way for a second Trump term, it isn’t Sanders—it’s his most obstinate and obstreperous opponents.