The windblown white hair. The absent-minded professor persona. The straight-up socialism.
It’s Bernie Sanders’ moment in the leftist sun.
In a recent Wisconsin presidential straw poll of state Democrats, the self-avowed socialist and Vermont senator came within striking distance of the “inevitable” Hillary Clinton. Mr. Sanders got 41 percent of the vote, a strong second-place finish to Mrs. Clinton’s 49 percent.
When Mr. Sanders announced his candidacy, I thought (half-seriously) that perhaps he had done so at the Clintons’ behest. After all, with no meaningful internal opposition, she’s already running a general election campaign. Having a radical leftist like Mr. Sanders in the Democratic race makes her look moderate by comparison.
It was always a wild theory, which now looks wildly wrong, given Mr. Sanders’ surprising strength. Mrs. Clinton needs him to pontificate radical leftism while polling in the single-digits.
The Wisconsin result shows that the hunter may be becoming the hunted.
How did the Democratic Party normalize extreme leftism to such a degree that an unreconstructed socialist is claiming more than 40 percent of the vote?
The longstanding fault line between the far-left and moderate wings of the Democratic Party has now completely ruptured, thanks in large part to the electoral success of President Obama.
In 1968, there were three major groups on the political scene: the Great Silent Majority, led by Richard Nixon; the mainstream Democrats, led by Hubert Humphrey; and the far-left radicals.
The radicals were made up of aging New Dealers, anti-war radicals, zonked-out hippies, free-love yippies, angry feminists and coercive racial activists, whose common agenda was to transform America into a socialist utopia.
Many of them poured into Chicago in 1968 for the Democratic National Convention, sparking violent riots. The spectacle of a Democratic mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, having to use police force against a violent collection of leftists crystallized the moment: The counterculture, led by the anti-American radicals, had taken over the Democratic Party. Nineteen sixty-eight would mark the last pro-American Democratic presidential ticket in Humphrey-Muskie.
After 1968, the radicals used their leverage within the party to nominate fellow radicals for president: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry. They had managed the wholesale takeover of one of the nation’s two major political parties and commandeered it to one electoral disaster after another (Mr. Carter won only because of the Watergate backlash; he lost re-election).
Those political losses occurred in large part because the centrist Democrats fled what was now the party of the leftists. The old-school Democrats in the tradition of Mr. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy — who opposed massive expansions of government power, believed in a strong foreign policy and truly loved America — were grandfathered in to the Great Silent Majority.
Their final break with their former party took place over the Vietnam War, which the left opposed as immoral but which traditional Democrats saw as a necessary exercise of U.S. power. It was an ideological divide that could not be bridged. And they — along with tens of millions of others — turned to the Republican Party, giving Messrs. Nixon and Reagan victories in 1972, 1980 and 1984. Their landslides were a direct result of the abandonment of mainstream Democrats by the new lords of the far left.
The only blip on the leftist radar was Bill Clinton, who was a product of two developments: the perceived end of the Cold War, which generated confidence in handing over the national security controls to a Democrat; and the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council, which cultivated “third way” candidates between the Republicans and the far left.
For more than a quarter of a century, the DLC promoted centrism and championed moderate, pro-free-market Democrats. Its goal was to get Democrats back to the mass-market center in which they had thrived before the radical takeover. During its zenith, the DLC boasted members such as Sens. Sam Nunn, Joseph Lieberman and Evan Bayh.
Unfortunately, like many of the moderate Democrats it supported, the DLC met a grisly political end. After Mr. Clinton, the leftists regained control of the party, and led by the victorious Mr. Obama, coerced the moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats to support their highly unpopular, radical agenda, including Obamacare, deep military cuts and massive deficit spending.
In November 2010, almost half of the Blue Dog coalition lost re-election, and the DLC found that it no longer had a vibrant Democrat middle to serve. It shuttered in February 2011.
This is the current Democratic Party, which Mrs. Clinton is struggling to navigate. Ideologically, she has always been one of them. But in her own party, she is now stalked by socialists and other progressives whom she once considered kindred spirits.
The Democratic centrism that had carried her husband to two victories no longer exists, an irony and challenge dogging the left’s one-time cover girl.
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