Monday, June 14, 2021

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    Bernie Lost Again, but This Time He’ll Deliver a Victory Speech at DNC

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    Bernie Sanders, stoop-shouldered in his navy-blue suit jacket, adjusted his chair and stared into the camera as the livestream began this month. He bobbed and jabbed both fists in the air, verklempt. He smiled.

    Then with a boxing announcer’s rumbling crescendo, he introduced three protégés who had recently won their primaries, including the activist Cori Bush.

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    “And last but certainly not least, we have the heroine of the moment. … from St. Louis Missourrrrrri….”

    It has been four months since Mr. Sanders ended his campaign for president. Since then, progressive candidates have notched once-improbable primary victories against longtime Democratic incumbents. Each member of the so-called Squad, the group of progressive women of color in the House, will almost certainly return to Washington. The coronavirus pandemic has revitalized support nationwide for progressive policy proposals including “Medicare for all.”

    In that time, Mr. Sanders has quietly faded back into Senate life. Aside from endorsing some fellow progressives down the ballot, he has largely kept his focus on the public health crisis. One of his latest initiatives was to introduce legislation that would provide “masks for all.”

    On Monday, Mr. Sanders will address the Democratic National Convention and once again make his case for the progressive cause. Once again, he will deliver a speech as a losing candidate to rally his loyal followers behind another nominee.

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    But this is not 2016. While Mr. Sanders nominally lent his support to Hillary Clinton at this point four years ago, he never stopped arguing that he had been mistreated in the primary — that the election was rigged and the entire political system was, too — an air of grievance that his followers took with them to the convention floor.

    That 2016 gathering was overshadowed by hacked emails from D.N.C. accounts showing party officials eager to help Mrs. Clinton and undercut Mr. Sanders — a revelation that left the party’s Clinton and Sanders wings deeply divided and confirmed the longstanding complaints of bias from the Vermont senator.

    Mr. Sanders is still stubborn, still passionate and still convinced he would have made the best president. But this year, he also appears to be something else: at peace.

    Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

    “I understand we do not agree with Joe Biden on all of the issues — believe me, I know that, I ran against Joe Biden,” he told hundreds of delegates on a call last month. “But at this moment, what we need to do is engage in coalition politics with the goal of defeating Trump.”

    Allies say the success of other progressives, like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, has perhaps lifted some of the weight off his shoulders. He appreciates that so many within the party have embraced at least the spirit of his ideas — including universal health care, eliminating student debt, and making public colleges and universities tuition-free — even as he remains frustrated with the pace of change.

    He sees his address to the virtual Democratic convention as a pivotal moment to summarize the arc of progressive gains. He plans to deliver the address live from Burlington, Vt., though there will be a prerecorded version as well in case there are technical difficulties. He will have an eight-minute time slot. He is writing the speech by hand, on his customary yellow legal pad.

    “He may feel a little bit like Moses,” said Barney Frank, the now-retired liberal congressman from Massachusetts, comparing Mr. Sanders to the biblical figure who, it is written, led his people to the Promised Land but could not enter it himself. “And that’s a reaction he’s entitled to have.”

    Like Mr. Sanders, the party’s left flank has also been far more sanguine in its approach to the general election than it was last time. Though some of his delegates have refused to back the Democratic Party platform, arguing that it does not go far enough particularly on health care, progressives have largely taken their cues from him and fallen in line. Even those most disenchanted with Mr. Biden appear largely intent on backing him in November.

    Their acceptance has perhaps never been clearer than it was last week after Mr. Biden announced that he had selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. Many progressive activists, organizers and elected officials had hoped Mr. Biden would elevate one of their ideological allies, but they still largely applauded his choice and reiterated that their highest priority was ousting President Trump.

    By most measures, it is this overwhelming desire to defeat Mr. Trump that helps explain why the Democratic Party does not expect Sanders loyalists to be as disruptive to the electoral prospects of the party’s nominee as they were in 2016. Mr. Sanders is now keenly aware of the electoral power his loyal backers wield, and that their support for Mr. Biden could be a key factor in beating Mr. Trump. Never again, aides say, does he want to inspire the kind of divisiveness that some in the party still blame for the election of Mr. Trump. (Some detractors also see sexism in this more conciliatory approach, suggesting that his supporters harbored particularly visceral disdain for Mrs. Clinton because she was a woman.)

    And while Mr. Sanders’s backers still bemoan the quick coalescence of his more moderate rivals behind Mr. Biden after the South Carolina primary, it is harder to assert that the process was rigged. After all, it seemed briefly as if Mr. Sanders would win.

    After a strong showing in Iowa and a victory in New Hampshire, Mr. Sanders, then considered a front-runner, ran away with the Nevada caucuses. “We have just put together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition, which is not only going to win in Nevada, it’s going to sweep the country,” he told an exultant crowd in San Antonio that February night. He predicted a victory in Texas the next month.

    That victory did not come, one of a string of losses on Super Tuesday that ground his momentum to a halt. Sidelined by the pandemic soon after, he surrendered the race to Mr. Biden. “I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win,” he said at the time, “and which would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour.”

    Sanders supporters say the swiftness with which his supporters have united behind Mr. Biden is a testament to how Mr. Sanders has approached this entire second presidential bid. They point in particular to his decision to exit the race in early April, before the race could become acrimonious, then almost immediately back Mr. Biden.

    It was a striking departure from 2016, when he remained in the race even after it became increasingly clear he would not win. He did not endorse Mrs. Clinton until days before the convention, a decision that she and her aides maintain came too late and was too dutiful and halfhearted to unify the party behind her. (Mr. Sanders and his associates, by contrast, frequently note that he and Mr. Biden are friends.)

    “I do think he’s certainly playing the political role that you would ask him to play,” said Faiz Shakir, who served as Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager for his second presidential bid.

    The two sides are also in relatively frequent contact. Mr. Sanders has asked Mr. Shakir to stay engaged with the Biden campaign, and Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden themselves speak periodically.

    Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

    And few in the party would deny Mr. Sanders’s enduring influence.

    “He stuck his neck out really, really far when other people wouldn’t,” said Ms. Bush, a progressive activist who beat a longtime House incumbent in her Democratic primary this month in St. Louis. “Other people were doing it a little here, a little there. And he just jumped all in — both feet, all the way up to his head.”

    Ms. Bush said she would think of Mr. Sanders — “Uncle Bernie” — as her guide, though she also now intends to follow her own path.

    “I’m expecting to be able to turn to Bernie to mentor me, but also be someone who is going to still want Cori to be Cori and not try to turn me into someone that I’m not,” she said.

    Since dropping out of the race, Mr. Sanders has focused on maintaining a visible public persona via livestream, using the infrastructure he built up during his campaign. He has endorsed progressives, including Ms. Bush. He has expressed interest in finding ways to support the new group of progressives in the House.

    Among some younger progressives, he is now regarded more as a wise elder than a crusading candidate for future office.

    “I think younger people who have been successful in electoral politics this cycle see this moment as theirs and in fact are snatching the torch,” said Mondaire Jones, a 33-year-old progressive lawyer who won a Democratic House primary in New York.

    When Mr. Sanders called to endorse Mr. Jones before his primary in June, the two men talked about the Democratic primary, and Mr. Jones said he had been sad when Mr. Sanders dropped out. But so many young Sanders supporters had then migrated to help him, Mr. Jones said, that it ended up that it ended up benefiting his campaign.

    “It really, I think, was a transference of that energy,” he said.

    Those close to Mr. Sanders suggest there is more to come, that his speech on Monday will not be his last time he engages with electoral politics. This conviction has done nothing to blunt the sense of wistfulness for a long political career that has most likely reached its peak.

    “I think he feels that he has done so much,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, a close ally of Mr. Sanders. “I hope he feels that he has done so much to build the movement and elevate these issues that never would be where they are without him.”

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