Is the Democratic Establishment Trying to Take Down Bernie?
Sanders supporters are still haunted by the ghosts of 2016’s primary battles
On Saturday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders issued a sharp public rebuke to the Center for American Progress, an influential left-leaning think tank with significant ties to Hillary Clinton.
His letter, addressed to the board of the CAP and its associated action fund, took the group to task for articles published on ThinkProgress criticizing Sanders and fellow Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. In particular, he slammed CAP executive director Neera Tanden, former policy director for Hillary Clinton and later domestic policy director for Barack Obama. She “repeatedly calls for unity,” he wrote, “while simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas.”
The group fired back. ThinkProgress is “editorially independent of both CAP and CAP Action and has been for years,” American Progress said in a statement, linking to a 2008 post about the same issue by the site’s former editor in chief, Faiz Shakir. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Shakir was recently hired as the first Muslim campaign manager for a major presidential candidate: Bernie Sanders.
The weekend back-and-forth brought to a boil an issue that has been at a low simmer for more than two years now — the conviction among many Sanders supporters that the Democratic Party establishment is aligned against them. And they have some evidence for that view.
Flashback to three years ago, when Sanders’ fired-up army arrived in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention feeling anything but affection for their party peers. Their darkest conspiracies had proven all too true. Thanks to the now infamous release of purloined emails by WikiLeaks, it was evident the DNC had, in fact, been working on Clinton’s behalf and to Sanders’ detriment. The head of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was revealed to have called Sanders’ campaign manager at the time, Jeff Weaver, a “damn liar” and an “ass” and said the candidate himself “has never been a member of the Democratic Party and has no understanding of what we do.” Her resignation was announced within days. (Her replacement, Donna Brazile, would later become the subject of her own WikiLeaks-fueled controversy when hacked emails showed that she’d tipped off Clinton to debate questions during the 2016 campaign.)
For a time, passions seemed to cool. But recent disputes suggest hostilities could flare into open warfare again at any time.
And so, as some of Sanders’ biggest supporters marched through the sweltering summer heat outside the convention hall, they carried signs that made their anger plain: “No Unity” stenciled over Hillary Clinton’s trademark H; “Does Not Care About Democracy”; “Bernie or Bust”; and “You Can’t Make Me Vote for Hillary.” Some Sanders delegates staged a convention walkout. One of them from Washington state told Vice, “We’ve had it with the hypocrisy, the lies, the being used for votes and campaign funds and then just being thrown out like garbage. This is basically a peasant’s uprising.”
Sanders aides still grumble about leaks to the media that they think establishment forces pushed out after the 2016 election, when the Sanders camp was calling for party reforms and the Clinton camp was arguing that such reforms would hurt minority representation in the party.
Still, progress was made. Amid the post-election wreckage, the DNC formed a “Unity Commission” that proposed a number of reforms, which were later adopted, including curbing the power of superdelegates, opening up the caucus and primary process to allow more voters to participate, and increasing transparency around budgets and contracts. Newly elected DNC chair Tom Perez — who assumed the office after a heavily contested fight against the favored candidate of the Sanders wing of the party, Keith Ellison — began his tenure by asking every DNC staffer to submit a letter of resignation, a typical move but one that had the effect of removing several Clinton loyalists.
For a time, passions seemed to cool. But recent disputes suggest hostilities could flare again at any time. Although the DNC has reformed and pledged neutrality this year, Sanders supporters still see a Democratic establishment preparing to do everything it can to prevent Sanders from claiming the Democratic nomination next year.
“In 2016, over 2 million potential voters for Bernie in California were left uncounted and the win was handed to Hillary. How can we ensure that all votes are counted in the 2020 Presidential primary?” one user recently posted in a “Bernie or Bust” Facebook group, voicing a sentiment frequently expressed on the page.
In mid-March, when Beto O’Rourke announced his eye-popping first day fundraising totals — $6.1 million in the first 24 hours alone, more than Sanders but from fewer individual donors — some Sanders supporters pounced. “Well this is awkward!” Xavier Perez, a 2016 Sanders volunteer tweeted, “@BetoORourke gave the remaining $4.5+ mill from his Senate race to @TexasDemocrats a few months ago, & the Party sent the money back to him on the day his announcement.” The since-deleted implication was that Beto was merely moving money from his Senate campaign to a state party account and back again in violation of federal election laws. The charge was baseless, but it was heavily shared by Sanders supporters before being debunked.
Other moves against the progressive wing, however, happened in plain sight. There was the recent announcement by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that they plan to blacklist any consultant firms that do business with candidates challenging incumbents. There was Barack Obama in Europe warning that progressives engage in purity tests and warning against “a circular firing squad.”
Sanders supporters point to former Hillary Clinton aides on Twitter knocking Sanders for agreeing to a Fox News town hall or for delaying releasing his tax returns, which led one former Clinton spokesman to suggest that DNC should bar him from the debate stage until he did so. They point to what they see as a consistent anti-Sanders bias in the mainstream media, particularly in the Washington Post, which has run a series of anti-Sanders op-eds of late, including one that called Sanders the “Donald Trump of the Left,” another headlined “Bernie, Your Moment Has Come and Gone,” and most recently, a response to his CAP letter, accusing him of having “thin skin, sharp elbows and not [being] a team player.”
As Sanders’ letter made clear, the Bernie camp will aggressively defend its interests. The leaders of the Bernie Delegates Network, which comprises three-fourths of the delegates who attended the convention on behalf of Sanders, recently sent out an email to members filled with talking points that members could push out on their own online networks, including articles criticizing the records of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke.
“The people who are part of the establishment, they are going to do what they can to hurt Bernie”
“We need to create a prophylactic approach from the get-go,” said Norman Solomon, a founder of the Bernie Delegates Network, in an interview. “We need to be realistic about the media onslaught, the propaganda that will be thrown at us from many quarters.”
Some Sanders’ supporters even saw the recent airing of Biden’s questionable interactions with women as proof that the establishment was out to get their man, citing suggestions made by Trump and others that the women who came forward did so at the behest of the Sanders camp, something that Charles Lenchner, a co-founder of The People for Bernie, a group that promotes Sanders online, said was untrue.
“If we were behind it, I would know about it,” he said.
In conversations with more than a dozen Sanders aides and supporters, a clear theme emerged. While most felt they had vanquished their most important 2016 foe, the DNC, they agreed there were plenty of other powerful segments of the larger Democratic establishment that will do whatever it takes to keep a Democratic Socialist from carrying the party’s banner in November.
“We know who these people are,” said Katherine Brezler, national digital director of the People for Bernie Sanders. “They are billionaires who want the most amount of access and the greatest amount of influence over public policy. They are going to exert that.”
“The people who are part of the establishment, they are going to do what they can to hurt Bernie,” said Howie Klein, a prominent progressive blogger, activist and fundraiser. “They would be happy with anybody who would maintain the status quo. Bernie is a threat to everything they have. He would be a transformational president so they are going to do whatever they can to stop him.”
Unlike 2016, however — when Sanders was still introducing himself to most voters and the socialist ideals he espoused seemed more radical than they do today — he has emerged as the frontrunner in early polls and the candidate who has raised by far the most money from the most donors.
“This time,” as one former Sanders aide put it. “We are the establishment.”