Tonight, after President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union speech and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams deliver the official Democratic response to that speech, Bernie Sanders will have his say.
“For the third time, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will deliver a response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night,” the press release sent to reporters announced Monday afternoon.
That is a very bad idea for Sanders.
Why? Simple. Because Sanders is a near-certain candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. (He has yet to announce a candidacy but everyone expects he will.) But he has been – and plans to remain – an independent in the Senate, identifying himself as a democratic socialist, not a Democrat.
During the 2016 campaign, as Sanders was mounting a surprisingly competitive challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary fight, there were whispers – that turned into shouts by the end of that race – that Sanders wasn’t even a “real” Democrat, so how could he be allowed to run for the party’s nomination?
In 2014, Sanders, in an interview with the liberal Nation magazine, sought to explain why, after a career as an independent, he would run for president as a Democrat. He said, in part:
“The dilemma is that, if you run outside of the Democratic Party … you’re not just running a race for president, you’re really running to build an entire political movement. In doing that, you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected—the [Ralph] Nader dilemma…The bolder, more radical approach is obviously running outside of the two-party system,” he added. “Do people believe at this particular point that there is the capability of starting a third-party movement? Or is that an idea that is simply not realistic at this particular moment in history?”
That is, in essence, Sanders acknowledging that he couldn’t have a realistic chance of running as a third-party candidate, and therefore decided to run as a Democrat. He enrolled as a Democrat but then un-enrolled when the race was over.
“I am an independent and I have always run in Vermont as an independent, while I caucus with the Democrats in the United States Senate,” Sanders said in 2017 in New Hampshire. “That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
In his 2018 re-election race, Sanders, as he has done before, ran for the Democratic nomination but declined it – choosing to run as an independent in the general election.
All of which brings me to this: Within a not-insignificant chunk of the Democratic Party, there is some leftover ill will toward Sanders for his role in the 2016 campaign and lingering doubts as to the firmness of his commitment to the Democratic Party.
Given that, why, why, why would you choose to deliver your OWN SOTU response? Why not just let Abrams handle it? Why put yourself out as special and different from the party you want to lead in 2020 – especially when you know people in that party already have doubts about how firmly committed you are to it?
(Sidebar: Yes, I know California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is also running for president in 2020, is set to deliver a SOTU pre-buttal before Trump speaks tonight. But Harris isn’t dealing with the same is-she-really-a-true-blue-Democrat that Sanders is. No one has – or will – question Harris’ commitment to the Democratic Party and its principles. She’s always been a Democrat. Sanders, well, hasn’t.)
What Sanders is doing by giving his very own SOTU response is sending a very clear sign that he’s different than the rest of the Democrats running for office. I’m in my own party and I’ll give my own State of the Union response!
That will please his loyalists to no end. The problem for Sanders is that in a field filled with major Democratic heavyweights – and rising stars – is that simply being a liberal alternative to the establishment (in the form of Clinton in 2016) won’t likely be enough.
Democratic voters in 2020 will have candidates who not only represent their own liberal views but also have aligned themselves with the Democratic Party their entire lives. And that may leave Sanders on the outside looking in.