Jul 2, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Liberals sour on Bernie

Illustration of Bernie Sanders waiving to someone unseen from a corner
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Some progressives are distancing themselves from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — leader of their revolution.

The big picture: Three factors are fueling the shift. Some feel he's not pushing President Biden far enough to the left anymore. Some believe his time as the movement leader has simply passed. Some fear tying their brand to Sanders is a gift to opponents to weaponize in crowded primaries or in general elections — and they're instead weighing the merits of aligning more directly with Biden.

Driving the news: Even some of Sanders’ closest allies — like Nina Turner, his 2020 campaign co-chair, who's running in a hotly contested Aug. 3 Democratic primary for a special election for Ohio's 11th congressional district — haven't been running with his endorsement front and center.

What they're saying: "When I'm knocking door-to-door, people aren't asking me about endorsements," Turner tells Axios. "The race that I'm running is about Ohio 11, and I'm the one running this race."

  • Turner is running on Sanders' liberal agenda but not his name.
  • "The senator and I are still close," she said. "We forged a strong relationship and we still have that to this day."
  • Jeff Weaver, a longtime Sanders aide and consultant to Turner, said in a statement: "The progressive movement is in a period of maturation. Progressives have shown they can inspire voters and win in state after state — as Bernie did in 2016 and 2020. Now, they are showing they can govern in an effective and principled way in coalition with more conservative elements of the party."

The big picture: Several progressives in Congress and on the outside lament Sanders’ unwillingness to “raise hell” now that Biden is in office and begging for party unity.

  • They want Sanders to be the liberal lightning rod he was before dropping out of the race and joining Biden task forces.

The intrigue: Turner's political dilemma is more complicated. Aides and backers tell Axios that part of the calculation around Sanders is actually the fact that Ohio 11's voters overwhelmingly embraced Biden last year.

  • In a crowded primary, they don't want to give Turner's opponents any easy ways to argue that her ties to Sanders would pit her against Biden or make her unwilling to work with more moderate Democrats.

House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) recently got involved in Turner's race to endorse one of her opponents, Shontel Brown. Instead of making the endorsement about Brown, Clyburn seemed to take his frustrations with some progressive colleagues out on Turner.

  • He told the New York Times his aversion to "sloganeering" and phrases like "defund the police" and "abolish ICE" helped him make this decision — but Turner doesn't call for either of those.
  • Rather than describe herself as a Sanders protege, Turner mentions President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Black women who played historic roles in U.S. politics and the voting rights movement: "I'm a Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm Democrat. In the vein of FDR. That's the kind of Democrat I am. I'm a Fannie Hamer Democrat."

Between the lines: Progressives are operating without a clear, commanding leadership structure.

  • Some say the time has passed for Sanders, 79, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), 72, while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and fellow Squad members still have not achieved leadership positions in Congress.

Why it matters: The progressive movement is in a new phase. Activists say they’ve changed the conversation on key issues but need to start banking more wins — legislatively and in terms of which candidates emerge from Democratic primaries to get elected.

  • They don't yet have the numbers to override the Manchin-Sinema Senate caucus, land a $6 trillion infrastructure demand or make Biden hold to his veto threats.
  • Meanwhile, calls for police and voting rights reforms are bumping up against GOP efforts to brand Democrats as weak on crime or exaggerate the aim of critical race theory education.
  • That, in turn, is bumping up against a razor-thin majority in the House, a 50-50 Senate — and Democrats' fears of losing both chambers in next year's midterms.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from Sanders and Turner ally Jeff Weaver.

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