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[Francis Wilkinson] How Sanders saved the Democratic Party

With his string of primary losses today to former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders has revitalized the institution that he most loves to hate: the Democratic Party. Sanders had hoped to overrun the party. Instead, he inspired resistance among older blacks, suburban white moderates, feminists, pragmatists, patriots -- all those loosely affiliated voters whose priorities may vary but who share the paramount goal of removing Donald Trump from the White House.

“Voters are making tactical decisions about defeating Trump,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told the Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein last week. Greenberg called the late shift in the race to Biden a “once-in-a-century kind of primary.”

Sanders had promised to deliver something historic; voters rerouted the package to Biden. After crushing Sanders on Super Tuesday last week, Biden won in Michigan, Mississippi and Missouri, the first of six states that reported votes Tuesday. Biden overwhelmed Sanders among black voters, won big among older voters, did well in affluent suburbs and held down the Sanders vote in counties where Sanders had dominated Hillary Clinton in 2016. As the votes began rolling in Tuesday night, Biden appeared in firm possession of a winning national coalition.

The Democratic Party had a solid, arguably excellent, field of candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination. (Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, also sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He endorsed Biden on March 4.) The field included the nation’s most prolific policy engine, Elizabeth Warren, and a smart, telegenic senator and former state attorney general, Kamala Harris, whose multicultural heritage seemed built for a national future. If Biden hadn’t run, perhaps one of them would’ve seized the nomination.

But it seems an unlikely coincidence, during a campaign in which Sanders has repeatedly attacked the Democratic “establishment,” that the candidate on the way to the nomination is an unrepentant institution man who’s been a party stalwart for half a century.

Sanders posed far less of a demagogic and existential threat to the Democratic Party than Trump did to the Republican Party. But unlike Republicans, Democratic voters fought back. And unlike Trump, Sanders refused to accept leadership of the party when it was dangled before him.

As New York magazine’s Eric Levitz wrote last week:

“Sanders entered the 2020 race with high favorability and name recognition among Democratic primary voters. He could have tailored his campaign strategy to the goal of maximizing his support among rank-and-file Democrats. Instead, he chose to reprise his role as an insurgent outsider, running to overthrow the ‘Democratic Establishment,’ and stuck to that script even after his victory in Nevada made him the race’s overwhelming front-runner.”

In effect, Democratic voters have announced that they want the problems of the party, the nation and the world to be worked out within the Democratic Party as it stands, not via a makeshift insurgency waging war in all directions. According to a recent poll, 81 percent of Democratic primary voters say that being a Democrat is either a very or somewhat important part of their identity. Only 19 percent say it is not very or not at all important.

Sanders was unwilling to hear that message -- even from the left. This sensible lament of Richard Yeselson, a contributing editor at Dissent magazine, fell on deaf ears:

“While Sanders plugged his ears, his sometime ally Warren was hearing the bell toll loud and clear. In an interview last week with Rachel Maddow after she withdrew from the presidential contest, Warren spoke less as a progressive activist than as a Democratic one. She talked of bringing new Democrats into the party through her field organization. Asked about the divisiveness fostered by some Sanders supporters, Warren said the politics of division is ‘not who I want to be as a Democrat.’ She repeatedly cited ‘Democrats’ and the Democratic Party -- and when she did so, she wasn’t talking, as Sanders does, about an antagonist. She was touching home base.”

Warren may have lessons for others. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is poised to inherit the Sanders movement, said in an interview published in January, “Democrats can be too big of a tent.” In her view, she said, Democrats “let anybody who the cat dragged in call themselves a progressive. There’s no standard.”

Of course, the Democratic Party ushered in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act while its ranks included a large faction of racists and crackpots. Liberals compromised their principles and got something valuable in return, at least until the price of compromise grew too high.

The Democratic Party is far more coherent now than it was then, and most of the nation’s political knuckle-dragging now takes place in the GOP. If Democrats are ready to make Biden their nominee, it’s not because they suddenly fell in love with him a year into his third try for the presidency. His weaknesses are no more secret than his strengths. It’s in part because they’ve concluded that the party he represents, and the institutional history he embodies, is worth preserving -- and is the most likely vehicle to victory.

By Francis Wilkinson

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and US domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.