When Bernie Sanders appeared on CNN with Dana Bash earlier this week, there were a few surprises. The first was that, for the most part, Bash restrained herself from doing the usual CNN/MSNBC hard attack on leftists, which typically consists of constructing counter-factual either-or scenarios like “what do you tell people who will lose their health insurance if Medicare for All is implemented?” (Spoiler: Nobody loses health insurance in M4A.) The closest she came was asking if it was hypocritical for Sanders to push for reconciliation in the Senate when he criticized Republicans for using the same tacic, but the appetite for defending any aspect of Republican ideology is so meager that she was willing than normal to accept his “yeah, but we’re doing it to help people” explanation.
The most surprising part, though, came when Sanders issued a warning to Democrats about the stakes of these next two years, and the dire need to actually help the American people. It begins at the 5:40 mark here, just after the reconciliation talk and before the inevitable meme segment:
It’s worth reading his response in full:
What history tells us is that, when Clinton won in ‘92, two years later, the Democrats didn’t do as much as they should have. They got swept out by the Republicans. Obama won in 2008; 2010, Republicans decimated them at the polling booths.
Look, Dana, this is not complicated stuff. We’re in an unprecedented moment in American history. Tens of millions of people are hurting. People are watching this program, do not have food in their cupboards to feed their kids. They are sick. They cannot afford to go to the doctor. They cannot afford the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs.
They’re worried about climate change, and what that will mean for their kids in future generations. That is where we are right now. And the American people say: We elected you guys. Do something. Improve our lives. We are in pain. We are hurting…and if Democrats, who have slim majorities in the House and the Senate, we have got President Biden in the White House, if we do not respond now, yes, I believe, two years from now, the Republicans will say, hey, you elected these guys, they did nothing, vote for us, and they will win.
This isn’t surprising in the sense that Sanders is saying it; he’s said similar things before. Nor is the content surprising, since it’s true and a lot of people know it. What’s surprising is that it’s coming from the mouth of the new Chair of the Senate Budget Committee.
The fact this kind of pre-emptive critique is originating from one of the most high-ranking Democrats in the country speaks to the position Sanders has carved out for himself with two of the most unlikely presidential campaigns in American history. It’s easy to look at the trajectory of the 2020 primaries and conclude that Sanders ultimately lacked the ability to capture the mainstream, or to view the whole thing as the triumph of the center-left establishment. Neither perspective is wrong; after the initial promising wave, Biden crushed him on Super Tuesday and the idea of Sanders as president collapsed. True or not, though, it’s also a narrow viewpoint. When you pull back and see the larger context, you remember that Sanders was a senator from a tiny state with virtually no national profile when he began his first campaign in 2015. The fact that he was speaking to crowds of more than 30,000 people within a few months, and the fact that he threw a major scare into the hand-picked party candidate two cycles in a row is, frankly, astonishing. It just so happens that it coincided with an even more astonishing campaign, that of Donald Trump, and so the Sanders movement earns less recognition than it otherwise might.
But the Democrats aren’t blind to what he accomplished, and they know that even though the leftists were defeated this time, the movement is growing at rapid speed. What Sanders did, with the help of other high-profile politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was to force the power structure to shift in his direction. That meant taking healthcare and the minimum wage and public education costs seriously, but on a more practical level, it meant recognizing him. Hence, he’s the chair of an incredibly powerful committee in the Senate, a position that I can guarantee you no Biden or Clinton Democrat in his or her right mind wanted to give him.
Despite losing, Sanders managed to kick down the party door, and now he has a seat at the table. What the interview with Bash showed is that, because he didn’t have to sacrifice any of his own political ideology to be there—because this was a gate-crashing—he will continue to speak and act like, well, himself. That means antagonizing for progressive policy, and it means warning the Democrats about the consequences of inaction, which is to invite the wolves right back into the house.
Even now, Sanders is pushing for a comprehensive emergency healthcare plan, to take effect only during the pandemic, that looks like—you guessed it—Medicare for All (there’s also a halt on medical debt collections baked in). Sanders isn’t exactly being clever here, since people do desperately need healthcare during the pandemic, but there is some strategy buried within it. He knows that passing comprehensive legislation is hard, but that once you give people something they like, it becomes very hard to take it away. Along with the obvious benefit immediately, a plan like this would show people how M4A might look in practice, and potentially increase its support nationwide among people who finally understand how it can improve their lives.
This, of course, goes directly against Biden’s stated healthcare plans, which involve tweaks to the ACA at most. His pandemic plan is equally cautious—it hinges on expanding COBRA subsidies, which is a classic half-measure that barely defrays costs—and stands in stark contrast to what Sanders is offering. Even though the Bernie plan is pitched as a temporary measure, its existence has to be incredibly annoying to the president and his staff. They have known what they were getting in Sanders, but even so, this isn’t how things normally work.
The difference is, Sanders understands the urgency of the moment. Those of us on the left and liberal center despise Donald Trump and his party for their unthinkable cruelty, but the fact remains that Trump increased his vote share and nearly won in 2020, and the Republicans actually won back House seats. The GOP is robust, sad as that may be, and while Democrats have tenuous control of all three branches, they need to act decisively to prove that they belong there, that they can help the American public, and that people should vote for them again in 2022.
To fail at that task would be nightmarish in the fallout. Sanders knows this, and he also knows that there’s an incredible amount of inertia within the Democratic party that serves as an obstacle to progress. Part of that is the influence of industry lobbyists and other special interests, and part of it is just mild incompetence born of decades of complacency. This is not a party designed to seize the day, but the time when the relative inaction of the status quo is a viable path forward has long since passed. Sanders has shown very early in Biden’s term that he won’t be a part of that inertia, and that even if the people in charge don’t like it, he’s going continue speaking the compelling truth that twisted the Democrats’ arms into giving him the bully pulpit in the first place. His approach is aggressive, it’s refreshing, and above all it’s necessary. He got where he is by the force of his ideals, and now he needs to drag the party across the finish line.