Despite losing the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders remains stronger than ever as the most popular progressive voice in Washington. Whether or not the septuagenarian Senator plans a 2020 run is still undecided, and all eyes will be glued to him until a definitive answer is reached. As of right now, Sanders is the de facto Democratic frontrunner, regardless of what pro-Clinton moderates in the mainstream media want to believe. He is the most popular politician in the country, and has yet to slow his frenetic pace even months after Trump took office.
But Sanders is old, and the GOP will attack him mercilessly if he moves to run against Trump. Many Democrats are clamoring for fresh blood, insisting that only young candidates can capture the youth vote. While this may be nothing but anti-Bernie sour grapes, since the white-haired Vermonter famously trounced Hillary Clinton among Millenial voters, concerns about the age of potential 2020 candidates like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are not unfounded. Liberals did not hesitate to make an issue of the age of 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, who clocked in at 72. Democrats questioned McCain’s ability to handle the rigors of the presidency as a seventy-something.
If Bernie Sanders needs an heir apparent to run in his stead, who will claim the mantle? Adopting the role of Bernie 2.0 comes with sizable rewards, but also considerable risks. Progressivism is in style, but the centrists in Washington are not down and out. Despite vocally criticizing Donald Trump and the alt-right, the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party remains relatively mum on Sanders’ bold reforms: A fifteen-dollar minimum wage, tuition-free public higher education for qualified students, and single-payer healthcare.
But one prospective Bernie heir has just leapt in with both feet: California’s junior U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris. The oft-mentioned possible 2020 contender will be co-sponsoring Sanders’ single-payer healthcare bill. Harris’ sudden support for single-payer is a sharp break with fellow U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and her own previously limited support, such as when she declared that single-payer was good “as a concept.” Now Harris is beyond the “concept” and willing to hash out the “details.”
By co-sponsoring Sanders’ healthcare bill, Harris beats fellow liberal powerhouses, including U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), to the punch. This leaves them to decide whether or not to compete with her for Sanders’ hordes of voters, or tack to the center and pursue the blessing of the pro-Clinton establishment. While Warren is probably too far to the left to migrate back to the center, Booker may be seen as the perfect centrist in a party that has shifted to the left since 2016.
Cory Booker, who backed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders early in the 2016 pre-primaries, struggles with cultivating a progressive image due to his controversial support for Big Pharma. Worried that he may not be accepted by Sanders’ legions, Booker may decide to court the Washington establishment as Obama 2.0 instead: Liberal on social issues, but centrist on fiscal ones. Harris’ decision to court Sanders progressives may have forced Booker’s hand, pushing him from left to center.
While Harris’ decision to stand with Sanders will inevitably boost her own standing with progressives, it could potentially keep Sanders in 2020 contention by boosting his own profile. Sanders needs to show that he can win support from other Democratic Senators, almost all of whom famously flocked to Hillary Clinton in 2016. After Clinton’s upset loss in November, Sanders’ once-radical ideas suddenly became the toast of town among rank-and-file Democrats.
Now that his “radical” bills are being co-sponsored by esteemed colleagues, Bernie Sanders may change his mind about exiting stage left in 2020. If Kamala Harris co-sponsored the single-payer bill solely to win accolades and Sanders’ nod of support, she might be sorely disappointed. The wily legislator has been fighting and beating the odds since the early 1980s, when he became mayor of Burlington, Vermont. If there is anyone in Congress who won’t pass up a chance to make a difference, advanced age or not, it’s Bernie Sanders.
Now that Harris has hitched her wagon to Sanders, she will be scrutinized by progressive voters to make sure that her progressivism is genuine. If they think she is truly on board with single-payer healthcare, tuition-free public higher education for qualified students, and a fifteen-dollar-per-hour minimum wage, they will almost certainly accept her as Bernie Sanders’ heir. But if her words and deeds make her political positioning appear more opportunistic than honest, those same voters will demand that Sanders himself run in 2020.
Bernie Sanders has giant political shoes to fill, and his supporters are notoriously finicky. Berners want prospective candidates to pass liberal “litmus tests” and declare that they will fight to the finish. If Kamala Harris is a genuine progressive, she may well become the next U.S. President. If she is simply trying to out-hustle rivals like Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, she may be rejected by fickle progressives when they sense something amiss.