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8-min read

Outsider or Insider? How Bernie Sanders Learned to Walk the Line

Bernie Sanders cut a bargain, eschewing the role of in-house rebel for the freedom to create and nurture his brand as the outsider, ever scornful of half-loaf compromise.

New York Times

Updated:July 7, 2019, 9:16 AM IST
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Outsider or Insider? How Bernie Sanders Learned to Walk the Line
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in Miami, Florida on June 27, 2019. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)
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Washington: Bernie Sanders was elected to the House in 1990 after branding himself an outsider and defying calls to join a Democratic Party he had long bashed as “ideologically bankrupt.”

Nonetheless, Sanders, a democratic socialist who won Vermont’s lone House seat as an independent, quickly sank into a funk when Democratic conservatives circulated a list of nasty things he had said about them over the years — ostracizing him from their caucus and blocking his committee assignments for a few nerve-frazzling days.

“That was emotionally very difficult — it was a very, very difficult period,” Sanders, who is not known for his sentimentality, said in a recent interview. “I’ll never forget it. You come into the House, you expect to come to work, and you find that the majority leadership doesn’t know where they are going to sit you — if they are going to sit you.”

He marked the moment, in an I-will-never-go-hungry-again kind of way. As time and circumstance changed, Sanders gradually evolved from a marginalized gadfly in the House to a reliable Democratic vote in the most insider-y club in Washington, the US Senate.

The change says much about the power of a senator compared with that of a congressman, but even more about the deep pragmatism of Sanders’ do-it-yourself political career, a quality that has propelled him to the top tier of the Democratic presidential field for 2020.

Sanders, in effect, cut a bargain, eschewing the role of in-house rebel for the freedom to create and nurture his brand as the outsider, ever scornful of half-loaf compromise.

“Nobody walks the line between insider and outsider better than Bernie — nobody,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016.

Indeed, Sanders, though still a registered independent, is increasingly emphasizing his hidden life as a get-along “Democrat” in an attempt to broaden his appeal and woo away voters who might otherwise reject his brand of insurgent politics for more mainstream candidates, like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

“He’s a Democrat,” said his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir.

During his 12 years in the Senate, Sanders, 77, has voted in favor of virtually every major piece of legislation, procedural motion or budget compromise pitched by his leaders — especially when his no vote would have affected the outcome. In the process, he has forged surprisingly close ties with Harry Reid, the wily former majority leader from Nevada, and Reid’s successor as Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York.

In turn, those senators have given him a platform from which to launch his big progressive policy agenda, including Medicare for all and free college tuition.

The Sanders two-step — voting with leadership, but unhappily — not only reflects his innate, if tempered, disdain for the establishment but also allows him to play the maverick even as he’s playing nice.

One Democratic senator, who likes Sanders, half joked that it was politically “important” for him to appear ticked off “at all times.” Sanders did not dispute the general point.

A big part of Sanders’ compliance stems from something he has seldom declared in his speeches: personal loyalty to Reid. In contrast to the hostility in the House, Reid welcomed the independent enthusiastically to his conference in 2006.

Their relationship faced a test in late 2009, when Reid summoned him to his office to nail down support for the Affordable Care Act, even though Sanders viewed it as a “pathetic” substitute for the federally funded single-payer system he had long championed — and some Sanders supporters were pushing him to oppose the bill.

“I’m not happy, Harry!” Sanders said shortly after sitting down in the leader’s office, according to people familiar with the exchange. “But I’m voting yes. So you don’t have to worry about me.”

A handful of conservative Democrats played hardball, but Sanders did not. He made two requests after pledging his loyalty: funding for community health centers, and a floor vote for a federally funded single-payer system, the basis for his current Medicare-for-all proposal.

He got the money, and Reid reluctantly agreed to schedule the vote; Sanders later withdrew the single-payer vote in the interest of speeding up passage of the bill, at Reid’s request.

“When you have a relationship with the U.S. Senate leader, who you consider a friend, you cannot blackmail him,” Sanders said. “It’s a two-way street. When I need help — and I think I wasn’t overly aggressive in demanding help on every bill, as some people do — Harry was there for me, and when he needed my support, I was there for him.”

In 2017, Sanders repeated the favor. Republicans in the majority tried to bring his Medicare-for-all proposal to the floor, in hopes of forcing endangered moderate Democratic incumbents into a party-splintering vote. Schumer persuaded a yet again disappointed Sanders to urge all Democrats, especially influencers weighing 2020 presidential bids, to vote “present,” rather than yes or no, to short-circuit the sabotage attempt.

But accommodation is not the same as accomplishment. Sanders’ record of legislative achievement has been slender and sporadic, with two notable exceptions: the passage of a bipartisan veterans health bill in 2014 and his success inserting $11 billion for community health centers into the Obamacare bill a decade ago.

“He introduces about 25 bills of substance a year,” said Craig Volden, a University of Virginia professor who runs a project rating the effectiveness of legislators, adding, “He has kind of a low batting average.”

Volden’s system rated Sanders as “below expectations” for much of his tenure in the Senate, based on bills passed or considered by committees.

That is the lowest rating of any of the seven senators seeking the presidency, far behind the leader of the pack among 2020 Democrats, the bipartisan deal-cutter Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — and a few notches lower than Sanders’ main competitor on the left, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

In the House, Sanders mastered the art of introducing “roll call amendments” — tacking on riders to larger bills aimed at cutting back the Patriot Act, scuttling trade deals and achieving other progressive goals. Many of his positions became Democratic orthodoxy in later years, but he devoted much of his energy to raising his profile and helping to organize the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“When he served here he was like a lone ranger — I don’t recall who he worked with, or on what,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who is one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s closest allies. “I don’t know what he produced in the House — thin, very thin.”

He has had more influence in the Senate, up to a point.

“Some senators, like Hubert Humphrey and Teddy Kennedy, were good on both inside and outside strategy,” added Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a labor-allied progressive who briefly entertained running for president this year. “Bernie has chosen to pursue the outside strategy. The inside is a means to that end. Bernie clearly looks to build support from the outside. He works with his colleagues, but the outside, that is his strength.”

His work as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee has been mixed. Sanders has had trouble recruiting and retaining first-class staff for the committee and has often called on Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a highly regarded legislative technician who served as committee chair, to lend the expertise of her aides on complex budget matters, according to three Democratic senators and two aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Sanders bridles at boring technocratic toil and once impatiently asked an aide, “What’s the news for today?” during a discussion of ho-hum committee business, one former staff member recalled.

Sanders said his main goal had always been to move the Democratic Party to the left, rather than work within the system to hammer out compromise measures. And he has had an impact on select issues, pushing the leadership of both parties to challenge President Donald Trump on his support of Saudi intervention in Yemen. When asked for his most significant legislative accomplishment in the past year, he pointed to bills that would pressure large employers like Amazon, Disney and Walmart to improve their pay and benefits.

That measure is unlikely to see the floor, he conceded, but the “point of the legislation was to tell Amazon, to tell Disney, we are going to stand with workers — you can have significant success without ever passing a piece of legislation.”

Despite wearing his curmudgeon’s attitude with pride, Sanders has gone out of his way to maintain a positive working relationship with Warren, huddling with her in a Senate hallway recently to smooth over a fracas between the campaigns on Twitter.

He worked closely with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on a major bipartisan veterans health care reform bill in 2014. Later, he asked McCain if he could use his image during the presidential campaign, to push back on Clinton’s claim that his legislative record was all “pie in the sky” with no real accomplishment. McCain was tickled and quickly said yes.

Sanders can often be less than attentive to the small but significant personal interactions that foster deep loyalty to him. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the only Democrat in the upper chamber to back Sanders’ challenge to Clinton in 2016, has yet to endorse him in the 2020 race. In fact, Sanders has not even reached out to formally request Merkley’s endorsement a second time, an omission one person close to Merkley viewed as a blunder.

And even Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the one Senate Democrat so far to endorse him for 2020, has not entirely forgotten the irritation Sanders has brought him over the years. There was that time in 1974 when Sanders’ third-party challenge nearly cost him his first election to the Senate.

“I was running to become the first Democratic senator in the history of Vermont,” Leahy recalled in an interview. “Bernie knew that 95% of the votes he got would come from me and not the Republican, but he ran anyway.”

Then Leahy paused.

“But, you know, he’s a likable guy.”

Glenn Thrush c.2019 New York Times News Service

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