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Democrats Lean Left, Seemingly Following Sanders' Lead

Sen. Bernie Sanders on coming to the bottom of an escalator at Capitol Hill on Feb. 9, 2018.
Jose Luis Magana
/
Associated Press
Some people say that Sen. Bernie Sanders, seen here at Capitol Hill on Feb. 9, has moved the Democratic Party too far to the left.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has kept himself in the national spotlight from his perch in the U.S. Senate. But critics say that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing because they say he’s moved the party too far to the left.

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While income inequality and Wall Street continue to be Sanders' top concerns, this year he’s taken up the mantle for young immigrants who are fighting to get permanent legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

He says protecting those so-called "Dreamers" is the main reason he opposed the recent bipartisan deal to fund the government, along with the increase in military spending.

“It doesn't deal with what I consider to be the great moral crisis of the moment and that is the status of 800,000 Dreamers,” Sanders said recently.

And when Sanders talks, people listen.

Democratic leaders tapped Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy to deliver their official response after President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech. But Sanders and three Democrats decided to give their own reaction, and the independent senator's response on social media showed he still has an army of supporters.

Vermont Democratic Congressman Peter Welch says it’s clear Sanders has moved the Democratic Party to the left.

"I mean there's no question,” Welch said. “I mean, his clarity of focus on the economic conditions of most of Americans who've been left out of this Wall Street boom I think really resonates."

"I mean, his clarity of focus on the economic conditions of most of Americans who've been left out of this Wall Street boom I think really resonates." — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

And if you look at the field of potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominees, it seems Sanders has had an impact — and not just on their more progressive or populist economic agendas.

Before he ran in 2016, Sanders endorsed decriminalizing marijuana. Now the top senators eyeing the White House have all followed suit.

And last month, New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand made an announcement that seemed reminiscent of Sanders' own campaign donation pledge.

"Because of the corrosive effect of corporate money in politics, I've decided, from this point on, I am no longer accepting corporate PAC checks into my campaign,” Gillibrand said.  

Some party insiders worry that a Sanders-driven, progressive agenda will not play that well with voters in swing districts, some of which are up in 2018. But it’s not a criticism the party cares to call out publicly.

As for which one of these many potential presidential candidates is having the biggest impact inside the Capitol, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill refuses to weigh in: "I- I'm not talking about it," she said in a brief interview.

But you know who is eager to talk about Sanders? Republicans.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt is a part of the GOP leadership team and he likens Sanders to the progressive version of the Tea Party.

"You know, I think that they are responding to the Bernie Sanders wing of their party much like a lot of Republicans responded in 2009 and '10 to the sudden Tea Party movement in our party." — Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

"You know, I think that they are responding to the Bernie Sanders wing of their party much like a lot of Republicans responded in 2009 and '10 to the sudden Tea Party movement in our party,” Blunt said.  

Blunt added that Sanders and his progressive following has tainted the Democratic Party, which he blames for much of the paralyzing gridlock marking today’s Washington.

“Which, among other things, makes it almost impossible for you to move to get anything done. And I think we were suffering from that a decade ago, and I think they're suffering from that now,” Blunt said.

But another potential presidential aspirant brushes that aside. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker says some people are giving Sanders too much credit.

“I've got 49 colleagues, and I don't think Bernie Sanders has changed any one of us in terms of our stances. And so, I don't know about this whole thing about bringing us to the party of the left,” he said.   

"I've got 49 colleagues, and I don't think Bernie Sanders has changed any one of us in terms of our stances. And so, I don't know about this whole thing about bringing us to the party of the left." — Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Still, Booker said Sanders is sustaining his base and helping paint a stark contrast to Trump.

"Look, first of all, he's a valuable colleague and brings a lot of really important issues to the larger national conversation,” he said. “He's energizing people — energizing the base. So, I think that it creates more vibrant dialogue and more vibrant energy."

Welch says he sees Sanders’ impact on his colleagues regularly at the Capitol.

“He's constructive. He's been an issue leader," Welch said. "He has an immense amount of credibility from his presidential campaign and he's focused on issues. So, I think he's being a constructive voice. And, you're seeing a lot of the party embrace his focus on working-class concerns."

But Welch says some people in the party have still failed to learn the proper lesson of what Sanders brought to his bruising primary fight with Hillary Clinton. He says the lesson is to focus on a positive, economic-based agenda that is not just anti-Trump.

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