WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — When Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his entry into the 2020 presidential race Tuesday morning, the decision was met with a mix of frustration and excitement by Democrats, but it was welcomed with open arms by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, which is eager to portray his potential opponents as far to the left of mainstream America.
"Bernie Sanders has already won the debate in the Democrat primary, because every candidate is embracing his brand of socialism. But the American people will reject an agenda of sky-high tax rates, government-run health care and coddling dictators like those in Venezuela,” Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.
Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont who considers himself a democratic socialist but caucuses with Democrats, vastly outperformed expectations in the 2016 primaries, but he still lost the Democratic nomination to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by a wide margin. This time, he predicted, will be different.
“We’re gonna win,” Sanders said in an interview with John Dickerson of CBS News that aired Tuesday, vowing to launch a movement that will “lay the groundwork for transforming the economic and political life of this country.”
Still, many within the party remain angry with the senator for dragging out the divisive 2016 race even after it was clear Clinton had the votes to become the nominee.
“Bernie’s gonna lose this time in a fashion far more embarrassing than last time all because he tasted power three years ago and never let it go. Icarus, flying in an Apollo Jet, too close to the sun,” former Clinton campaign staffer Rob Flaherty tweeted Tuesday.
Sanders has maintained an active and expansive political support network since 2016. He consistently comes in near the top in most polls of potential 2020 candidates, and his campaign raised $1 million in less than four hours after his announcement Tuesday morning.
Yvette Simpson, executive director of Democracy for America, a political action committee that endorsed Sanders in 2016, applauded him for driving a transformative grassroots movement, but she noted supporters of a progressive agenda have more choices this time around—including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
“With Sanders joining Warren, Harris, Gillibrand, and a number of others, we're more confident than ever that Democrats will find the candidate we need to defeat Trump and start delivering the kind of economic, social, and racial justice needed to improve real people's lives,” Simpson said in a statement.
Many of the policy positions Sanders embraced in 2016 have been adopted by other Democrats, including some who are already running for president. Medicare-for-all, free college tuition, higher taxes for the wealthy, a higher minimum wage, and an aggressive climate change agenda are already features of several candidates’ platforms.
“What Bernie did was allow people who had never really been asked what they wanted or what they thought to actually have a voice,” said Arnie Arnesen, a New Hampshire-based progressive radio host who supported Sanders in 2016.
Justice Democrats, a group that backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other democratic socialists in the midterms, credited Sanders for making progressive policies top priorities for the Democratic Party and inspiring activism against the “billionaire class.”
“The center of energy in the Democratic Party wouldn't be where it is today without his 2016 campaign,” Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shahid said on Twitter.
The Trump campaign was eager to tie the Democratic Party to Sanders’ self-avowed democratic socialism. The president has repeatedly hammered socialism in recent weeks, and it is shaping up to be a central theme of his 2020 run.
“We know that socialism is not about justice, it’s not about equality, it’s not about lifting up the poor. Socialism is about one thing only: power for the ruling class,” Trump told a Venezuelan-American audience in Miami Monday. “And the more power they get, the more they crave. They want to run healthcare, run transportation and finance, run energy, education — run everything.”
Sanders dismissed such attacks, stressing that he is talking about implementing the social safety net policies popular in places like Finland, Sweden and Denmark, not turning the U.S. into Venezuela.
“When I talk about democratic socialism, you're not talking about the government running the local grocery store or anything else like that,” he told CBS.
Some Democrats seem unconcerned by the prospect of being branded as socialists. They argue Republicans try that tactic in every election, and they point to polls showing socialism’s favorability among the public rising and voters becoming increasingly comfortable with ideas like Medicare-for-all.
“What’s so strange about it is the Republican Party of 2019 seems to think we’re still in 1981 or something and the American people can’t see through the blind attacks on socialism for what they are,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America.
Centrists and Sanders critics warn support for Medicare-for-all cools very quickly once voters are informed of the cost or the implications for private health insurance. Sen. Harris already faced blowback for suggesting in a CNN town hall that she would eliminate private insurance entirely.
Chris Galdieri, an associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire—where Sen. Harris spoke Tuesday morning and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., appeared in a CNN town hall Monday night—observed other candidates appear to recognize the potency of attacks on socialism. Harris explicitly rejected the label of democratic socialism Monday and Warren recently described herself as supporting “capitalism with rules.”
“Most of the Democrats running are going out of their way not to describe themselves as socialists,” he said.
Sanders is not solely responsible for the leftward shift of the Democratic Party—which he is not officially a member of—but his 2016 campaign provided evidence there is an enthusiastic constituency for a more progressive platform.
“For a few decades Democrats running for president tended to avoid the sorts of positions Sanders espoused, or if they did, they fared very poorly in the primaries,” Galdieri said. “Since 2016 and the start of the Trump administration, I think a lot of Democrats are much more open to ideas like Medicare-for-all and the like.’
Sanders is already framing the 2020 race as a continuation of his fight to pull the party and the country to the left.
“What this campaign is about is understanding that three years ago we began the political revolution,” he told CBS. “Now it's time to complete that revolution and to take those-- that vision and implement it into reality.”
However, the 2020 playing field is already vastly different from the one Sanders faced in 2016. Last time, Clinton was basically considered the presumptive nominee before she even announced her campaign, and the few other candidates who got into the race besides Sanders had little to no impact.
There are already nearly a dozen announced candidates in the 2020 Democratic race and about 20 others are still considering a run, and none of them is a clear favorite. Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden currently top many polls, but experts chalk much of that support up to name recognition. As other candidates campaign aggressively and introduce themselves to voters, some may find a more appealing messenger for what was once exclusively Sanders’ message.
“In 2016, Bernie was the contrast to Hillary Clinton. Now who is he in contrast to?” Arnesen said.
Speaking to CBS, Sanders argued this all makes the race easier for him to win than what quickly became a one-on-one fight with Clinton.
“When you're running against one person you know you gotta have 51 percent of the votes. Now who knows what you need, 30, 35 percent,” he said.
As Democratic candidates crowd into the left lane of the 2020 race, the pragmatic, centrist lane Clinton occupied in 2016 sits mostly empty. Klobuchar made a firm pitch for that slot in the CNN town hall Monday, promising scaled-back visions for health care and education reform and suggesting a “magic genie” would necessary to pay for ideas like free college for everybody.
Considering how Clinton fared in the general election, Arnesen questioned the political potency of Klobuchar’s approach.
“How does she differ from Hillary Clinton?” she asked. “Hillary Clinton didn’t exactly excite people, and a lot of people voted for Trump or Bernie because they were tired of Hillary.”
Democratic strategist Hamza Khan, founder of the Pluralism Project, expects the Democratic primary voters who decide the nominee may disagree with Klobuchar about whether universal health care and student debt forgiveness are pragmatic solutions.
“Klobuchar and others will find themselves having to explain what pragmatism means,” he said.
Sroka was similarly skeptical of the notion that telling Americans these goals cannot be accomplished is going to win over voters.
“The United States in the last century defeated Nazism and went to the moon,” he said. “The idea that we cannot find a way to give every American access to health care and a path to economic prosperity that doesn’t mire them in debt for decades is absurd and frankly has been rejected by the American people repeatedly at the polls.”
Other Democrats appear to be leaving a slot open for a moderate white male candidate to see if Joe Biden jumps in, and it is not yet clear who would serve as the counterbalance to Sanders-style socialism if he opts out. If not Biden, Galdieri expects someone like Klobuchar, Sen. Sherrod Brown, or Montana Gov. Steve Bullock will position themselves as the sensible centrist in the race, but he doubts they will carry the party back toward the middle with them.
“I don't know that Biden or one of these other candidates will necessarily pull anyone toward the center, but they'll have less company there than they would more toward the left side of the spectrum,” he said.
Khan questioned the presumption that Biden would seek out the center at a time when the Democratic Party is not shying away from leftist positions.
“A candidate like Joe Biden would definitely attract attention from many sides. The question is, how far to the left will he go?” he said.
Also, if Democrats are at risk of leaning too far to the left, Khan stressed President Trump faces the same risk or an even greater one on the other side as he works to energize his base with unpopular moves like declaration a national emergency to fund border wall construction.
“Donald Trump has shown the more rightist your agenda, the more alienating you become,” he said.
Experts were hesitant to predict whether Sanders can win the nomination or what the electoral landscape will even look like a year from now, but Arnesen believes he may have served the party better from outside the race promoting ideas and candidates he supports than as a candidate himself.
“The reason I have a sense of disappointment Bernie ran this time is, I think Bernie has made a huge change in this country... Some of us get to open doors. Others get to walk through them,” she said. “He opened the door, look what’s walking through it. Does it have to be him?”