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Opinion What a difference Bernie Sanders made

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes how Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign shaped the 2020 primaries and what his exit means for the general election. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sen. Bernie Sanders accomplished far more than he could have imagined on April 30, 2015, the day he first entered presidential politics. Thus the paradox of his announcement Wednesday that he was leaving the 2020 presidential race: It was a victory lap in the form of a concession speech.

The independent from Vermont who allied with the Democratic Party but always kept his distance has a lot to brag about. Across a broad front of issues, he has decisively moved the party leftward.

The most dramatic change, newly central in the coronavirus pandemic, is on health care. By popularizing Medicare-for-all, he has shifted the entire conversation. Now, the moderate position in his party is universal coverage with a public option, an approach that was out of the Democrats’ reach when they passed Obamacare a decade ago.

He has made the $15 minimum wage party doctrine, and if Democrats were to gain the presidency and control of Congress this fall, they would, thanks in part to Sanders and his movement, be bolder in containing climate change, increasing access to higher education and rolling back economic inequality.

Sanders also benefited from a shift in opinion that he encouraged but did not invent: the growing disenchantment of younger Americans with capitalism in the wake of the Great Recession. “The future of this country is with our ideas,” he declared in his video from Burlington, Vt. While young people who vote in Democratic primaries are no doubt to the left of those who don’t, he had a point. Americans under the age of 35 are the country’s most progressive generation since the cohort that powered the New Deal coalition. Sanders gave them a voice.

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Yet the movement he built came in parts. Its left wing did not want Sanders to withdraw in favor of former vice president Joe Biden, whose campaign drew an enormous boost from Wednesday’s news. This part of the Sanders coalition was always more of a third party than a Democratic constituency.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dropped his 2020 presidential bid on April 8, but many of his progressive policies remain a part of the Democratic conversation. (Video: The Washington Post)

On the other side, elected officials who supported Sanders felt his time was up. Primary results and national polls showed that Sanders represented only about a third of the Democratic Party. Biden did not arouse the same opposition from blue-collar Democrats that Hillary Clinton did in 2016, which meant that Biden beat Sanders in many of the Midwestern counties the insurgent had won four years earlier.

Thus did Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) write Sanders’s longtime adviser Jeff Weaver on Tuesday night arguing that the “goodwill he gets by acting sooner is more leverage [with] Biden than prolonged battle.”

In effect, Sanders split the difference, staying on the ballot to gather delegates and influence the party but formally ending his campaign with warm words about Biden. Sanders’s relationship with Biden was always better than his rapport with Clinton, and Sanders always felt that Biden had a personal commitment to working-class voters whose standard Sanders saw himself as lifting.

But the biggest difference-maker was President Trump. “Hillary was polarizing on our side,” Welch said in an interview. “Trump is unifying on our side.”

If the threat a Trump presidency posed to the country was not as obvious to many as it should have been in 2016 — partly because few expected Trump to win — the peril a reelected Trump would represent to democratic institutions is obvious across the party. The Democrats’ desire to defeat Trump not only fed the surge to Biden after his defeats in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, but also influenced Sanders’s own thinking once Biden started winning.

Welch sees Sanders as central to Biden’s chances of winning support from a “progressive left who don’t particularly support the Democratic Party as an institution but whom we need to get out to vote.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), another Sanders supporter and co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, also hopes Sanders can push Biden to address the concerns of voters who may have drifted to Trump or were indifferent to Democrats because “their lives are in such a state of devastation.”

In the end, she said in an interview, Sanders’s greatest contribution may involve demonstrating the importance of what she called “inside/outside politics.” Sanders and his movement sought to create outside pressure on elected officials, but also encouraged its members to join the electoral fray and win places at the tables of influence. The goal “is a change in belief about what is possible and then figuring out how to move things on a tangible level.”

Jayapal cited Frederick Douglass’s observation: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” It might well be the slogan of the Sanders movement. Its task now is to elect a president open to its demands and responsive to its hopes. With his decision, Sanders made it as clear as he could that Donald Trump will never be that person.

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