Sanders’s impact is most readily apparent in the domestic-policy sphere. The Democratic field is collectively running well to the left of where Hillary Clinton started her 2016 campaign. That is a credit to Sanders, whose insurgent primary challenge against Clinton forced ideas such as Medicare-for-all and debt-free college into the mainstream. In the wake of Clinton’s loss, Warren and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) signed onto both Sanders proposals, all but ensuring they would get a hearing in the presidential campaign. (Warren has since introduced her own higher-education and student debt-relief plan, and Harris unveiled an alternative Medicare-for-all proposal Monday.) Even as former vice president Joe Biden has started echoing dishonest Republican attacks on Medicare-for-all, Sanders remains its fiercest champion in the race.
Willingness to venture beyond political caution is distinguishing the Sanders campaign. He regularly denounces institutional racism in many forms, but Sanders also goes further, challenging bias in systemic as well as specific terms. “Structural problems require structural solutions,” he wrote in The Post three weeks ago, “and promises of mere ‘access’ have never guaranteed black Americans equality in this country.”
Sanders rebuked the facile segregation of economic and racial issues, noting that politicians are too "beholden to the one percent” to target the very rich, yet doing so would close “the black-white wealth gap.” Both racial and economic disparity must be addressed, he wrote, or “some people, especially African Americans, are going to be left behind. We should not be swayed by those who would try to force us to choose one over the other.”
The 2020 campaign has yet to see much debate over foreign policy, but there, too, Sanders’s voice is essential. Since his previous run, when his lack of foreign-policy experience was widely viewed as a weakness, Sanders has become one of the most prominent critics of the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment.
Together with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), he spearheaded the Senate resolution to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. While rejecting “photo opportunities,” Sanders has supported talks with North Korea in principle, distinguishing himself from opponents (such as Biden and Harris), who have criticized President Trump from the right. He has also made a concerted effort to listen to peace activists, recently featuring the founder of Women Cross DMZ in a video about the dangers of ramping up sanctions on North Korea.
But rather than reporting on his growing leadership regarding foreign policy, media coverage of Sanders’s views on the subject has tended to focus on his opposition in the 1980s to President Ronald Reagan’s covert war in Nicaragua. Of less interest is the fact that Sanders was right about the U.S. government’s disgraceful actions.
As he did in 2016, Sanders is running a dynamic campaign, fueled by enthusiastic small donors, a strategy that Warren has also embraced successfully (though with some differences). He remains in a virtual tie with Warren for second place in the national polling average. He also is the most popular second choice among Biden supporters, fares better in a potential general-election matchup than any candidate except the former vice president and recently won a Democracy for America straw poll.
Despite the evidence that the Sanders movement is very much alive and has had a profound effect on how issues are being framed in the 2020 race, some in the media seem eager to write him off. That impulse has been manifested in a recent trend of reports that seemed to intentionally play down Sanders’s position in the polls, in some cases by not mentioning him at all. MSNBC has been arguably the worst offender, repeatedly listing Sanders’s name below candidates he’s beating.
Sanders’s campaign may not feel as revolutionary, in some respects, the second time around. But that’s only because of how much Democratic politics has changed, in large part because of Sanders (though much more needs to be changed). Likewise, if his message to voters seems familiar, that’s because the predatory corporate power and systemic inequality that he has dedicated his career to fighting are only metastasizing. As Sanders recently said, “When the poor get richer and the rich get poorer, when all of our people have health care as a right, when we are leading the world in the fight against climate change — you know what? I will change what I’m saying.”