Long a lonely voice of the left in the Senate, Bernie Sanders is poised to return to his day job as a potential kingmaker after a presidential campaign that made him a household name and hero of the progressive movement.
But the Vermont senator risks frittering away that newfound clout, Democratic senators said Wednesday, if he doesn’t move soon to unite the party and train his fire on Donald Trump.
The lawmakers said they’re disturbed that Sanders hasn’t more forcefully repudiated the behavior of his supporters in Nevada last weekend. Sanders backers threw chairs, shouted down Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and threatened a state party chairwoman — raising the specter of similar ugliness at the Democratic National Convention in July. While Sanders has not suffered permanent damage in the eyes of his colleagues, his reputation among Democratic Party stalwarts is hanging in the balance.
“It depends on how he handles the national convention in Philadelphia and how he handles the next months,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who says she was heckled for the first time in her life by Sanders supporters during the New Hampshire primary. “I appreciate that he’s going to continue to stay defiant, but the fact is Hillary Clinton’s going to win the nomination. Is he going to support her and campaign for her, or is he going to help elect Donald Trump?”
Asked whether the discord at the Nevada convention could spill into the halls of the Senate, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said: “It absolutely could.”
“What I’ve seen I don’t think has been adequate,” Tester said of Sanders’ statements about the violent atmosphere in Las Vegas and pointed attacks on the national Democratic Party. “As a candidate, you can come out very strongly against that violence stuff, and that would be the right thing for Bernie to do.”
There is evidence Sanders is working behind the scenes to quell the concerns of Senate Democrats. He spoke with Boxer on Tuesday and seemed to reassure her that he understood where she was coming from after she was booed mercilessly as she tried to speak at the Nevada event.
“He got a firsthand story from me about what happened to me, his longtime friend,” Boxer said. “It was a warm conversation. And I believe Bernie when he says he’s going to do everything to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t become president.”
Not everyone is there yet, though. Democrats said they want to hear an explicit, public repudiation of the Nevada melee and an Elizabeth Warren-like focus on Trump, who has reveled in the prolonged confrontation between Sanders and Clinton.
“I’m perplexed because the Bernie that I know always has stood for the highest principles of nonviolent behavior, advocacy of Gandhi and Dr. King,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). “I would like for him to live up to his own principles and standards. What happened in Nevada was beyond disturbing.”
Sanders’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment. He struck a mostly defiant tone in a statement on Tuesday, saying that while it “goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence,” the notion that his campaign has a penchant for violence is “nonsense.” He went on to note that earlier this year gunshots were fired at his campaign office in Nevada and an apartment complex housing his staff was “ransacked.”
It’s a painful moment for Democrats in the Senate, who have marveled at Sanders’ success and celebrated the placid nature of the primary contest in contrast with the GOP’s insult-filled proceedings. But now the Republican Party is reluctantly coming around to Trump, who is now going after Clinton full time, while the Democratic primary is generating headlines about intraparty warfare.
That’s starting to grate on senators. Democrats say they want to give Sanders a hearty welcome when he returns as a high-profile leader of the party’s progressive arm, but that it will be difficult the way the campaign is unfolding.
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