Psst…something’s happening in the party. Extremists are taking over. If you don’t watch out, they’ll start throwing a monkey wrench in elections until you listen to them.
No, I’m not talking about the Tea Party’s influence on the GOP, which, despite being characterized as “extremist” in some quarters, turned out to be a healthy pressure to return to the party’s small government, fiscally responsible roots.
Instead, I’m talking about the coming war on the left, between the progressives and the establishment Democrats. Although there have been some skirmishes so far, watch out for a big battle. If Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) runs for president, the war is on. Sen. Sanders represents the ultra-progressive wing of the American left. Although he eschews the Progressive Party label, he’s long been viewed as the man who brought progressive politics to the Green Mountain state. A run for president could signal he and his followers want a bigger say in liberal politics. He won’t expect to win, in other words, but he and the Progressives won’t stop until they’ve made a significant impact on Democratic agendas.
For a template on how this will work at the national level, in fact, look no farther than Sen. Sanders’s state — deep, deep blue Vermont. Despite bad news for the state’s incumbent Democratic governor (who failed to win a majority and awaits a legislative vote on his fate), for Progressives, the 2014 election was good:
“The Vermont Progressive Party increased its House Caucus from 5 to 7 members, and maintained 3 seats in the Senate (10%). This is a record number for Vermont’s third party which ran a total of 22 candidates this past election,” the Vermont Progressive Party Chair wrote in a press release after the election.
In 2002, the Vermont Progressive Party ran a candidate, Anthony Pollina, for lieutenant governor. He didn’t win (he now has a seat in the State Senate), but he pulled about 25 percent of the vote, splitting the liberal vote in the state between him and Democrat Peter Shumlin. Republican Brian Dubie won that race.
Mr. Pollina did not give up. He ran for governor in 2008, which again meant splitting the liberal vote in Vermont between him and the Democratic candidate, Gaye Symington. Republican Jim Douglas won instead.
While Mr. Pollina charted this course, other Progressives in the state moved forward, as well. Peter Clavelle, a Progressive who’d won the mayor’s seat in Burlington in 1989 and served 7 terms, threw his hat in the gubernatorial ring in 2004. But Democrats, perhaps chastened by the Progressive showing in the lieutenant governor’s race two years before, allowed Mr. Clavelle to run as a Democrat, so that the liberal vote wouldn’t be divided. He lost nonetheless to a strong incumbent, Republican Jim Douglas.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Progressive Party has grown in strength. Its policy agenda is often the Democrats’ agenda, as well. And, as recently evidenced by a video of Vermont legislators laughing with ACA architect Jonathan Gruber at a conservative’s comments on proposed health care reform, liberals feels so comfortable in the Green Mountain State that they treat opposition to their policies with public disdain, feeling free to openly mock adversaries with impressive resumes. The conservative, whose comments they made fun of, had served as an analyst in the Reagan administration, among other prestigious jobs.
After the Democrats’ national drubbing at the polls this month, they’ve moved to place Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in a leadership position in the US Senate. Sen. Warren is closer to Sen. Sanders in rhetoric and policy outlook than she is to, say, a Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) or certainly to a Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Is the Democratic Party worried that its core ultra-liberal base isn’t as jazzed about them as they need them to be? Sure looks that way.
But my guess is that the liberal base won’t be appeased by the mere appointment of Sen. Warren to a leadership role. They will want to see real policy action on their agenda. And even if they do, they might feel so burned by the 2014 election, where candidates, for the most part, distanced themselves from their agenda, that they’ll start thinking like the Vermont Progressives and run candidates under their own banner. So what if it splits the liberal vote? They’re looking at the long-term transformation of the Democratic Party into the Democratic-Progressive Party. Although this has been happening to some extent for several years now, it’s been mostly in the shadows, not covered in the media as much as the battles on the right.
If Sen. Bernie Sanders runs for president, though, the battle will be on. Unlike a Ralph Nader, Sen. Sanders’ run won’t be a protest. It will be the first step in a longer-term strategy.