U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is back at the same old stand, railing against Republican health care proposals before cheering crowds and television audiences. But beyond the attention and the adulation, the fiery Vermont independent has been encountering resistance from the voters.
Since the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, Sanders has compiled an even worse electoral record than House Democrats have in losing four of five special congressional elections. And now he faces a potential legal problem in his home state of Vermont.
Sanders supporters lost three special congressional elections, in California, Kansas and Montana. Backers of his 2016 insurgency lost heated fights to chair the national and California Democratic parties. And so did Tom Perriello, for whom Sanders campaigned in Virginia’s high-profile Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Besides, Sanders was hardly helpful in the Georgia congressional race, giving Democrat Jon Ossoff a halfhearted endorsement after complaining he was insufficiently progressive. His only victories have been in scattered local contests.
The irony is that, at a time Democratic grass-roots are aflame with desire for even stronger stands against Trump, Democratic voters may be confirming the more centrist course they took in rejecting Sanders for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In so doing, they may be sending a positive signal for the future, since the last thing Democrats probably need is to veer too sharply left to counter Trump’s extreme turn to the right.
And while Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren have advocated a more reflexively ideological course, two Clinton White House veterans, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed, are arguing persuasively that a more pragmatic response would help Democrats repeat their 2006 success of retaking the House during a Republican presidency.
Democrats, they wrote in The Atlantic, must not only pick their fights carefully, “they also need to choose credible candidates who can win them.” That means “candidates who closely match their districts — even if they don’t perfectly align with the national party’s activist base.”
Some such candidates may face liberal challengers. For example, some activists have talked of primary contests against U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin of West Virginia on grounds they are insufficiently liberal, though a more liberal candidate would likely have less chance of winning their relatively conservative states.
As for himself, Sanders has foresworn any talk now of a 2020 presidential rerun, when he will become 79. No serious rival has yet emerged to his 2018 re-election in Vermont. But he faces possible home-state problems stemming from a simmering investigation of his wife Jane’s management of the college she once ran.
According to the independent VTDigger, the FBI is looking into allegations initially made by a top Vermont Republican that Sanders’ office pressured a local bank into granting a $6.7 million loan for Burlington College to purchase a lakefront campus. The paper said three donors said their pledges were misrepresented in the loan documents; the college closed in 2016 with officials citing its debt from the land purchase.
Sanders told Burlington, Vermont, television station WCAX last month that any suggestion his office applied pressure was “nonsense” and has repeatedly said the investigation was “initiated by Donald Trump’s campaign manager,” a reference to attorney Brady Toensing, vice chair of the state Republican Party.
When CNN’s Erin Burnett raised it Tuesday night, Sanders declined to discuss details, angrily defending his wife as “about the most honest person I know” and adding, “When they go after your wife, people’s wives, that is pretty pathetic.” VTDigger and Politico reported Bernie and Jane Sanders have hired two attorneys to represent them in the probe.
The FBI probe could have additional political fallout for Sanders. His office declined to say if his wife’s financial dealings were one reason he has been so reluctant to issue his annual tax returns. That had little impact in 2016 but could become a bigger issue if he runs again, especially if Trump continues to withhold his tax returns. Sanders released a summary of his 2014 return but never fulfilled a promise to issue his 2015 return.
And pending California legislation would require candidates to release tax returns for the five most recent years to qualify for the presidential primary ballot.
Meanwhile, Sanders continues to expand his political efforts, adding a think tank called The Sanders Institute to the political organization Our Revolution. Both are headed by Sanders loyalists from his 2016 campaign.
But his ultimate success will depend on being able to persuade Democratic voters. That’s a fight he lost in 2016 and one where he is still encountering some resistance.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.