How Bernie Sanders made the Democratic Party safe for liberals

Sanders supporters in Phoenix, Arizona on March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

Bernie Sanders is not going to be the Democratic presidential nominee.

Whatever slim chance Sanders had to capture the nomination ended when Hillary Clinton won convincing victories in the key March 15 primaries. Clinton finished the night with an insurmountable lead of more than 700 delegates and is now within striking distance of the nomination.

Undaunted and unbowed, Sanders promises to stay in the race, and for good reason. He will undoubtedly win more states in the weeks ahead. But he’s not going to be able to catch Clinton. Unless the Justice Department indicts Clinton over the State Department email scandal, which seems highly unlikely, she is going to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2016.

Nevertheless, Sanders has made a huge impact on the race. His campaign has fundamentally changed the Democratic Party by moving it to the left.

The word ‘liberal’ is no longer off-limits

Sanders’ hectoring tone was part of his appeal. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

The word “liberal” used to be toxic in presidential politics.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican presidential candidates won landslide victories by arguing that liberal policies led to high taxes, rising crime rates and a weakened military.

The Republicans’ successful attack on liberalism made a deep impact on the Democratic Party. After liberal Democrats suffered crushing defeats in 1972 and 1984, Democrats found a way out of the national political wilderness by moving to the middle.

No Democrat mastered the art of centrist politics better than Bill Clinton. In shrewd and skillful fashion, he positioned himself in the 1990s as a pro-business, law-and-order moderate. Clinton’s move to the center worked phenomenally well as he became the first two-term Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt.

Although liberals continued to hold sway in blue states like California and New York, centrists controlled the national party. The centrist model has proved so successful that Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

Barack Obama personifies the Democratic establishment’s emphasis on centrist politics. As recently as last month, President Obama declared that he was not a “big government crazy liberal.”

But that is precisely why Sanders’ success in the 2016 campaign is so noteworthy. Sanders embraces the word “liberal” more proudly and enthusiastically than any Democrat since Walter Mondale in 1984. Under the banner of “democratic socialism,” Sanders has run on a platform of socialized medicine, tax hikes, trade protectionism, Wall Street regulation and tuition-free college.

It has worked to a remarkable degree. Sanders has won nine states and finished close behind Clinton in several others. No liberal has done so well in the Democratic primary field since the 1980s.

The fact that an avowed socialist gave Hillary Clinton such a tough race is telling. For the first time in decades, liberals are a force to be reckoned with in Democratic presidential politics.

A more liberal Clinton campaign

Clinton celebrates four big wins on March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Sanders has done more than just make the word “liberal” acceptable in national politics. On issue after issue, he has shifted the entire political center of the Democratic Party to the left.

One need look no further than Hillary Clinton’s campaign for evidence of the leftward shift.

Entering the 2016 campaign, Clinton planned to use the same centrist playbook as her husband did in the 1990s. Indeed, that’s probably why she thought she could get away with giving paid speeches to Wall Street firms. After a quarter-century of centrists dominating Democratic presidential politics, she did not fear a liberal challenge.

But Sanders’ victories forced Clinton to reverse course. She now advocates positions well to the left of centrist Democrats. For example, she has endorsed tough new regulations of Wall Street banks, a new national focus on reducing income inequality, an end to the mass incarceration policies begun under her husband two decades ago and sharp new taxes on the wealthy.

By any measure, Clinton is running a far different campaign than her husband did 20 years ago. And the reason is Bernie Sanders.

A bright future for liberal Democrats

The unexpected success of the Sanders campaign makes clear that the future of the Democratic Party lies with left-of-center politicians.

The driving force behind the liberal renaissance is the “millennials,” the generation of Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s.

In Iowa, Sanders carried young voters by an astounding 70-point margin over Clinton. Similarly, he won 83 percent of voters under age 30 in New Hampshire and he won 81 percent of young voters in Michigan.

Sanders did not win the support of young Democrats because he looks and sounds like them. He’s a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont with a cranky disposition and a strong Brooklyn accent.

Instead, Sanders won over young voters by arguing that government can play a positive role in American life.

Sanders’ success with millennials did not happen by accident. National surveys show that millennials are the most liberal generation in years. For example, a majority of millennials support nationalized health insurance, expanded social services, and increased government intervention in the economy.

In the end, there were simply not enough young voters to overcome Sanders’ fatal flaw: his inability to connect with African-American and Latino voters, who overwhelmingly supported Clinton.

But the ideological trendlines are clear. A recent Pew study found that the percentage of self-described liberals in the Democratic Party has grown from 27 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2015. The numbers continue to grow. In many of this year’s primary states liberals constituted more than 50 percent of Democratic voters. By the 2020s, liberals will likely constitute a majority of the whole party.

In short, Sanders may have lost the battle, but his supporters will ultimately win the war.

Secretary Sanders?

With the toxic and volatile Donald Trump closing in on the Republican nomination, Clinton is a clear favorite to win the presidency.

If Clinton does indeed prevail in November, recent history suggests Sanders could end up in her Cabinet. Eight years ago, after a bruising primary campaign against Clinton, Barack Obama appointed her to serve as his secretary of state.

Clinton would be wise to show similar magnanimity toward Sanders. The position of secretary of labor would be a natural fit for Sanders, who has focused his presidential campaign on the economic hardships of the working class.

Whatever the future holds for Sanders, one thing is clear: he has changed the Democratic Party and quite possibly the direction of the country as well.