Biden Victories Calm the Waters as Sanders’ Ship Founders

March 6, 2020 by Dan McCue
Election 2020 Bernie Sanders

WASHINGTON – Former Vice President Joe Biden’s string of Super Tuesday victories has temporarily calmed fears about what a Bernie Sanders nomination or actual presidency might mean for the Washington establishment.

But longtime members of the city’s downtown community – those who work in the district’s lobbying firms, political organizations, advocacy groups, businesses, say it’s too early in the race for the Democratic nominee to begin taking a victory lap, and woe to those swing district lawmakers on the Hill who mistake a good night for Biden as cinching their re-election.

The possibility of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders topping the Democratic ticket has been inspiring a palpable fear among moderates of all stripes for months.

Among Democrats, of course, longstanding concerns begin with the fact that despite two presidential runs under the party’s banner, Sanders never embraced the party and remains an Independent and a Democratic Socialist.

These concerns gained renewed currency in February when The Atlantic reported Sanders got so close to running a primary challenge against President Barack Obama in 2012 that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to intervene to stop him.

In addition, in a series of conversations with The Well News, moderate Democrats and Republicans alike — a group that struggles with the current divisiveness on Capitol Hill every day — find it hard to envision Sanders bringing people together to pass even the policies dearest to him.

In their view, he’s shown no willingness to compromise in a system of government that is more polarized by the day. Then, there is the reality that many of the proposals he’s espoused on the campaign trail don’t have bipartisan support, let alone the requisite level of support from Democratic members of the House.

Finally, there are the many Democrats now working in the District’s policy arena who are nostalgic for the early years of the Obama administration, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

To them, that’s the bygone era of functional government they dream of getting back to; for them, the notion of a Sanders nomination or presidency is counter to that aspiration.

Moderates, inside and outside the District of Columbia, insist Sanders has given them no reason to believe otherwise.

Aren’t All Changes In Administrations Unsettling?

While it’s true that the wind at the back of every administration is the wind of change. A great many people in Washington see the prospect of a Sanders administration differently.

As an Independent seeking the nomination of the Democratic party, Sander’s election would reflect an undercurrent of anger and frustration similar to that which propelled Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.

For many voters, however, it is hard to imagine how replacing Trump with Sanders would do anything to fix the dysfunctional components of policymaking in Washington.

The record voter turnout for the South Carolina primary, followed by the record and near record turnouts on Super Tuesday coupled with former Vice President Joe Biden’s wins, support the idea that Democratic voters want a Democrat leading the ticket.

Biden’s victories– many of them by significant margins — in 10 of the 14 Super Tuesday states also appear to show that Democrats are exhausted from the past three years, and are seeking stability and pragmatism over a continuation of the scorched Earth approach of governing they are currently experiencing.

The voters who collectively turned their back on Sanders on Super Tuesday also appear to have acknowledged something else: That left on its own, the business of Washington has a propensity to gum itself up, and what is needed, in an era when partisan division is the worst it has ever been, is a leader for whom compromise is not a dirty word.

Since arriving in Congress as a member of the House in January 1991 (he ascended to the Senate in January 2007), Sanders has been the  primary sponsor of seven bills that were enacted. 

Of those, two bills were introduced to designate names for post offices in Vermont,  and one, passed as a resolution declared March 4, 1991, “Vermont Bicentennial Day.”

Now, very few bills are ever enacted and most legislators sponsor only a handful that are signed into law.

But according to the nonpartisan website GovTrack, Sanders ranks 86th out of 100 Senators on its leadership index which looks at who is cosponsoring whose bills. A higher score shows a greater ability to get cosponsors on bills.

“There’s certainly a sense shared by people who’ve worked in the Senate or been around him, that Sanders is not somebody who gets along well with others in terms of legislative output,” said a political consultant, speaking on background. “He’s certainly not a man with a reputation for compromise and obviously, with every piece of legislation you need some sense of compromise, right?”

A Threat to Moderates Lower Down on the Ticket

Moderates on both sides of the aisle live by a very specific credo: produce pragmatic results or go home.

Nothing on their resumes says anything about delivering a “revolution.”

These are the realities fueling a legitimate fear that if Sanders receives the nomination, his platform positions could adversely impact Democrats in swing districts — the centrists who won control of the House in 2018 for the party.

Dr. Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Va., said at the heart of Democrats’ concerns over Sanders as the potential presidential nominee was the thought that the word “Socialist” would be hung around their necks by Republicans all through the summer and into the fall.

“That would hurt the Democrats’ prospects up and down the ballot,” he said.

And this would be particularly true for the moderate Democrats who flipped Republican districts during the mid-terms.

“The Democrats who took seats away from Republican incumbents were all focused on suburban concerns,” he said. “None of them offered up Sanders-style left messaging, but that won’t matter.

“I have no doubt that if Bernie Sanders was the Democratic nominee, all the attack ads against these vulnerable first-term members of Congress would be all-socialists-all-the-time in terms of their narrative. Whether it’s true or not for them personally as lawmakers.”

If Sanders were to win the nomination then, it would be no surprise to see Democrats in these formerly Republican congressional districts seek to distance themselves from the head of the ticket to ensure at least some independence in their ability to get re-elected.

The easiest way to do that is step away from Sanders’ policy proposals while repeating the old bromide that the “Democratic Party is the big-tent party … and that there is plenty of room for different viewpoints.”

As for institutional Washington, lobbyists, consultants and other companies that do business with or need assistance from the government, they would prepare for Sander’s arrival in the Oval Office much the same way they prepared for Donald Trump — by recognizing there’s a new sheriff in town and rewriting their playbook accordingly.

During the Obama years, lobbyists and consultants worked with officials in all corners of the federal bureaucracy when trying to shape policy. Under President Trump, decision-making has been largely consolidated inside the Oval Office, requiring a much different strategic approach.

“Every new president poses some challenges,” a political consultant said. “Trump probably posed more challenges than anyone, certainly since Ronald Reagan. … but Sanders would provide a shock from a very different direction.

“The difference with Trump was that there was some sense, even with all his talk of draining the swamp, that he might want to make some deals that both sides could get along with,” the consultant continued. “I think there’s almost no sense that Sanders wants to make deals at all that are different from his plans … so if he became president, gridlock would probably rule.”

Said one lobbyist, also speaking on background: “It’s uncharted territory.”

Professor Farnsworth, who is also director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said if Sanders did wind up in the Oval Office next January, his presidency would probably look a lot like Donald Trump’s in some ways.

“He would probably use a lot of executive orders and he would dominate the news cycles, but he would achieve a great many legislative accomplishments in terms of moving his priorities on Capitol Hill,” Farnsworth said.

But the professor said there would be one important difference between Trump and Sanders in terms of how they conducted their presidencies.

“Donald Trump is really quite inconsistent in his principles,” Farnsworth said. “You know, one day he’s talking about trade wars, and the next he’s talking about bailing out farmers who are hurt by the very same trade wars. Or one day he’s talking about bombing North Korea and the next, there’s a bromance sprouting with the North Korean leader.

“With Bernie Sanders, you would not have the whip-sawing of policy for short-term advantage. Bernie Sanders would be all Bernie Sanders. All the time,” he continued. “At the same time, where a lobbyist or an advocate can persuade Trump on certain issues, Bernie Sanders would not be nearly as malleable a president.”

Farnsworth said as far as “downtown” Washington is considered, those whose job it is to educate lawmakers in the city will have a much tougher time doing so with Sanders in the White House.

“If there’s one thing you can say about Bernie Sanders it’s that this is a man with a very, very consistent voice,” the professor said. “His entire career, going back to his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, speaks to limiting the power of elites and people with money.

“Lobbyists, for instance, have never faced a critic as aggressive as Bernie Sanders. If he ended up being president, it would be a nightmare for K street,” he said.

What’s clear this week compared to last, is that Biden’s victories have been widely received throughout Washington like a favorable change in the weather.

Sanders’ path to the nomination is a lot narrower than it was before Tuesday, and Biden went from dead in the water to being in charge.

The known unknown in this new situation is what Sen. Elizabeth Warren will do. When she bowed out of the presidential race, she pointedly declined to endorse anyone.

If she decides not to endorse Sanders, it could be the blow that ultimately closes his path to the nomination.

There is a sense that gender issues are a firewall between Sanders and Warren and that she feels disrespected by Sanders as a woman.

Could that mean that Warren’s voters would just stay home this year?

A number of observers see the situation as more fluid and less predictable than one would think.

While many people simply assume that because Warren is a progressive, her supporters would migrate to the last progressive in the race. Such thinking begs the question, why were those voters for Warren and not Sanders in the first place?

If it’s because they preferred her policies, they might go for Sanders. If they simply didn’t like Sanders, there’s every reason to expect they might go for Biden.

“Bear in mind,” said one of these observers, speaking on background, “all of the major contenders vying for the Democratic nomination — including Biden — are running to the left of where Obama was when he ran in 2008. The Democrats running in the primary are all progressive by today’s standards within the party.” 

What’s certain is that no matter what happens, industry, nonprofits and advocacy groups will all continue to try to engage the administration on policy, build coalitions of support, and work with policymakers on the issues affecting the country.

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