adrian walker

Four years later, can Bernie Sanders catch fire again?

Senator Bernie Sanders spoke at a news conference in Washington on Jan. 30.
Senator Bernie Sanders spoke at a news conference in Washington on Jan. 30.(Associated Press)

Amy Klobuchar might have just become my favorite candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, simply because she was the first one to say “no” to something.

Appearing at a CNN Town Hall Monday night, the senator from Minnesota said she is not in favor of free four-year college. She also gently pushed back against the notions of Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, both of which she labeled “aspirational.”

She made it clear that she supports all those ideas, in theory. But she said she wanted to “tell the truth.” And the truth, in her view, is that not all of these progressive dreams can become reality in the near future.


I was struck by her comments because all those ideas — radical not long ago — are basically Democratic orthodoxy heading into the 2020 campaign, to the point that candidates tread very lightly in challenging them.

For that Democrats can thank — or blame — Bernie Sanders, the once-and-current White House aspirant.

Sanders made it official Tuesday: He’s running for president again. That wasn’t a surprise, given that he never completely left campaign mode after his run against Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Depending on where you were standing, that was either an inspiring or infuriating run. Sanders, the non-Democrat, waged a better fight for the nomination than most people would have expected.

And his effect on the party has been substantial. The party was moving to the left anyway, but his success in mobilizing and organizing progressives greatly accelerated that shift. Sanders didn’t invent the ideas he ran on, but his (relative) success drew them into the mainstream.

So Sanders 2020 should be a victory lap, right? Well, no.

Four years ago, Sanders ran in what quickly became pretty much a two-person race. This time he is going to share the limelight with an awful lot of people. Last time, he was the default choice of Democrats who were uneasy, for whatever reason, with Clinton. There will be no such dynamic this time.


Consider the field, the first truly diverse presidential field ever. In a time when voters are practically standing on their heads demanding change, Sanders will be a much harder sell as the vanguard of a new age.

And those ideas he championed? Most of the field supports some version of his signature proposals now. Can Sanders really emerge as a more persuasive progressive standard-bearer than Kamala Harris? Is he more of an agent of change than, say, Elizabeth Warren?

Clearly, no one has the slightest idea how this campaign is going to play out. But the turf Sanders had all to himself four years ago will be hotly disputed in 2010. I wonder if he realizes just how hotly disputed, in a party whose aspirations — to borrow Klobuchar’s term — have changed substantially in just four years.

None of this is meant to slight Sanders. While I believe he has been little more than a cipher in his long career in Congress, his presidential run was genuinely galvanizing. Democratic voters deserved a race, and Sanders jumped in where others feared to tread. By the same token, he was a total failure at attempting to unify the party in defeat, because he and his supporters couldn’t accept defeat. That, too, is part of the legacy of his 2016 campaign.


Partly, this race will be a test of just how far left Democratic voters want to move. But Democrats also seem to rightly want standard-bearers that look more like the voters that elect them. That is a terrible dynamic for Sanders, who is already preaching against so-called identity politics.

Maybe the electorate really has moved left to meet Bernie Sanders. But it’s just as likely that a party firmly wedded to change wants to look forward, rather than backward. Sanders may find that novelty is one quality that is impossible to reproduce.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker