“You come out of the gate and this is who you’re dragging around with you.”
Texas Insider Report: WASHINGTON, D.C. — During the 2016 Presidential Primary, Democrats nationwide worried that Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist who as a Vermont Independent has never won an election running as a Democrat, was pushing the party too far to the left.
But now, with the party still struggling to find its identity after a devastating 2016 defeat, an increasing number of Democrats who had previously been reluctant to welcome Sanders into their fold are coming around.
“It continues to drive me a bit nuts that he continues to register as an Independent, but the bottom line is, he’s a good Democrat,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary, who continues to worry about Sanders’ allegiance to the Democratic Party.
And on the Sanders’ side of the divide, there are still lingering feelings born from leaked emails that revealed Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffers secretly sought to tilt the presidential primary scales against Sanders, and in Clinton’s favor. Those revelations angered Sanders’s supporters, who have continued to press for changes to the DNC.
Hillary Clinton supporters, and other Democrats, mocked Sanders for being a one-issue candidate during the 2016 primary who championed what they called “unrealistic” proposals like free college tuition. And Sanders angered even more Clinton allies who felt he stayed in the race too long and cut into her message and campaign coffers.
Months afterward, many Clinton supporters still say Sanders deserves a good part of the credit for Clinton’s eventual loss to Donald Trump in the general election.
Despite former President Bill Clinton recently telling the new Democratic National Committee Chairman, Tom Perez, that he didn’t want the Democratic Party “to be simply the party of Bernie,” an aide to Clinton refuted the characterization, saying the former president has always believed the strength of the Democratic Party is its inclusiveness.
But while misgivings remain about giving too much leadership to a politician who technically isn’t a member of the Democrat Party, a clear warming trend is on the rise as the party struggles to find its identity after years of devastating down-ballot defeats during the Obama presidency.
Bitter feelings aside, many Democrats say Sanders is key to rebuilding the party.
“If you’re concerned with labels, you might bristle at the notion of a registered Independent jockeying for control over the direction of the Democratic Party — and there were certainly some in the party apparatus that expressed precisely this sentiment during the 2016 campaign cycle,” said Lynda Tran, a Democratic strategist.
“But if you’re focused on policy ideas over party labels, you might welcome the inclusion of his voice, and frankly other voices too, at a time when the Democratic Party is under intense attack and working on the path forward.”
The Democratic National Committee has increasingly sought to harness energy from the Sanders movement, as newly-elected party chairman Thomas Perez and Sanders have undertaken a self-described “unity tour” to try and unite the party after last year’s divisions. Sanders backed Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) against Perez in this year’s DNC chairmanship contest.
“At the end of the day, Bernie Sanders may be a registered Independent, but he has always caucused with Democrats, and there is no question he continues to enjoy strong support among many members of the Democratic Party,” Tran added.
Even those who staunchly supported Sanders in the presidential race acknowledge the awkwardness of Sanders’s decision to remain an Independent after the primary.
“I do think it’s strange. I was rather surprised that he went back to being an Independent, but I don’t think it matters,” said Bill Press, an early supporter of Sanders who served as a surrogate for the candidate during the primary.
“People like his ideas. Bernie is Bernie. Whether he has an I or a D after his name, nobody cares.”
Press, who writes a regular column for the Washington, D.C.-based newspaper The Hill, said Sanders received support from a wide swath of Democrats and plans to use his newfound celebrity to push causes vital to Democrats.
“I talk to a lot of people who now believe that Democrats nominated the wrong candidate, and they can’t say for sure that Bernie would have won, but they know Bernie was more in tune with the wavelength of the American people [than Clinton],” he said.
“He was an agent of change. Clinton was not.”
Still, there are still some Democrats, particularly those who supported Clinton, who find Sanders’s role offensive.
“You come out of the gate and this is who you’re dragging around with you,” said a former DNC official.
“A majority of people supported Hillary Clinton in the primary, and making Bernie one of the main figures of the Democratic Party isn’t going to do a damn bit of good.
“If he wants to make changes to our party, he should join it,” the official said.
One Democratic consultant, who supported Clinton, joked that it was the “Bernie Band-Aid tour: We’ll slap him over our problems, but fundamentally change nothing.”