The Hollow Sanders Movement

If you were following the 2007-08 Obama campaign closely, it was possible to get at least some outlines of what his administration might look like if he eventually won the nomination and the presidency. It was a fair bet that Tom Daschle would be in charge of enacting health care reform, and he would have been if he could have survived the confirmation process. You would not have been at all surprised if John Kerry were nominated to run the State Department. If you knew anything about the tight-knit relationship between Chicago-based pols, Rahm Emanuel’s appointment as chief of staff would not have shocked you. If you looked a little deeper, you’d see that people like Samantha Power and John Brennan were going to have influential roles, and it wasn’t hard to guess that Valerie Jarrett would be at the center of things.

Maybe it’s possible to do the same kind of prognostication about a potential Bernie Sanders administration, but I’ve been racking my brain and I’m not doing too well. He simply doesn’t have the establishment support to field a small army of surrogates. But it’s still surprising that people haven’t emerged to argue for his policies in magazine and newspapers columns. He’s proposing some pretty big ideas like taking another shot at single-payer health care and creating a system to provide free college tuition the same way that we have tuition free high school. You’d think there would some folks angling to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services or Secretary of Education in his administration. You’d think they’d be easy to identify because we’d see them making the case for Sanders’ vision for reform.

I’m sure there is some of this that I’ve missed, and please point me to anything or anyone that you’re aware of who is doing this kind of surrogate work.

But the relative absence of identifiable people behind Sanders who would be empowered by his election makes it very difficult for me to assess him as a candidate. I think we elect gangs of people to the presidency more so than individuals. The Clintons have a well-established gang. Some of their gang makes me crazy and some of their gang are people I have the utmost respect for, but I do have the ability to envision what a Hillary administration would look like.

With Sanders, I don’t know who would be empowered at Defense or State, or what kind of person he’d try to put in charge of the Treasury Department. Where’s the person who could be the point man or woman for his single-payer push?

This problem has really come to the fore in recent weeks as the wonks on the left have begun turning against Sanders on substance. With Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, and Johathan Chait blasting his health-care proposal, the lack of surrogates to push back has been quite noticeable.

Turning to the Democratic race, it’s been striking that since the Dem establishment and wonkish liberals began their political attack on Bernie Sanders — “He’s a socialist!” “He’s unelectable!” “The GOP will destroy him!” — the only Democrat who has pushed back on this critique has been Sanders adviser Tad Devine on MSNBC. Bottom line: Sanders doesn’t have any well-known Democratic Party validators to back him up. In 2007-2008, Barack Obama had plenty of Dem validators going up when going up against the Clinton machine — Tom Daschle, Tim Kaine, Deval Patrick, and Claire McCaskill (who’s maybe been the most aggressive against Sanders right now). It’s something to watch over the next 11 days: If 80% of the Democratic Party continues to hit Sanders here, and there isn’t DEMOCRATIC pushback, can Sanders win that fight?

Sanders is doing a lot of things very well. The poll numbers show it. His fundraising shows it. He organization on the ground is impressive.

But it’s still hard to figure out what him actually winning would look like. There are a lot of progressives who sincerely want to support Sanders but are holding back because either they’re not convinced he’s electable or they don’t think his policies are realistic or correct. If this is an ideological war for the heart of the Democratic Party, where are the ideologues or even the policy makers who are on Sanders’ side?

This is a deeper question than just who’s willing to stick their neck out and endorse him. Where are the people who agree with him, think he can win, and are in line to work for him when he becomes president?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.