Sen. Bernie Sanders is now a national figure. But has his role changed in the Senate?
Sanders has always been gruff. But before he hit the presidential campaign trail and came back to Washington as a progressive icon, he would stop in the halls of the Capitol and answer questions from reporters. Not anymore.
In fact, Sanders hasn’t been available for a call-in show with constituents on VPR since March 2015. But recently, he had time for a national primetime town hall on CNN where he faced off against Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Sanders has now been elevated to a leadership position among Senate Democrats – a post he uses to lash out against President Trump.
“When Trump talks about 3 to 5 million people voting illegally, he is sending a message to every Republican governor in this country to go forward with voter suppression,” Sanders said recently. “The great political and democratic crisis we face now in this country is not voter fraud, it is voter suppression.”
Is Sanders a changed man after his newfound national fame? Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey offers this:
“Not at all. His enhanced stature because of his presidential race makes him an invaluable voice now on all of the issues that Donald Trump has elevated for the political battleground of 2017.”
Republicans beg to differ. Sanders is the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, where he sits across from its chairman, Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Enzi brushes aside Sanders’ message.
“Even before he was a presidential candidate he was grandstanding. I have most of his speeches memorized,” Enzi says. “I know that he believes that you can tax the highest 1 percent in America and balance the budget with it, fix Social Security, fix Medicare – fix everything. We actually took a list of the top 1 percent, of their total assets and that would run the government for about three months. So that’s not the solution.”
Democrats view Sanders’ role differently. Rep. Peter Welch says Sanders is doing vital work for the party in a time where Democrats lack a national leader.
“Bernie is a national spokesperson for the revitalization of the Democratic Party,” Welch says. “He has the stature of an extraordinarily competitive presidential race. He’s been embraced by [Senate Minority Leader Charles] Schumer as a member of leadership, so I’d say he’s one of the most prominent spokespeople we have.”
Welch says Sanders’ appeal among blue-collar workers is just what the party needs right now.
“Well, Bernie really did well with working class voters, and we lost a lot of those working class voters. So I think Bernie really tapped into the frustration that people have, some of whom went for Trump, and … Bernie was offering concrete solutions that are widely embraced by the base of the Democratic Party.”
The Democratic Party seems to be at a crossroads. This weekend, DNC members will cast votes for who will lead their party into the 2018 midterm election. The top contenders are President Obama’s former labor secretary Tom Perez and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, an early Sanders backer whom Sanders has endorsed in the DNC showdown.
But Welch says his party isn’t warring about whether to go further left or to pivot towards the middle.
“You know, I don’t agree with that. I think that they’re agreeing to agree,” Welch says. “All of them are focused on a 50-state strategy. They know that we have to win in red states. They believe in organizing. And they all agree pretty much on a progressive agenda."
For progressives, Sanders remains the symbol of where the party needs to go. Prominent progressive Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva says Sanders is playing a vital role for the minority party in Washington.
“He’s a link to what we need to do, and by keeping the tone up and economic populism as an issue, I think it can do nothing but help us and hopefully move a lot of Democrats into that direction,” Grijalva says.
Vermont’s own Bernie Sanders promises to play a key national role for the Democratic Party over the next two years. What that will mean for his constituents remains to be seen, because Republicans are in power for the next two years. And while he’s the darling of progressives, he doesn’t seem to have the ear of many in the GOP.
Matt Laslo is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. He has been covering Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court since 2006.