Bernie Sanders is the Left's Ronald ReaganRoundup
tags: Ronald Reagan, political history, Bernie Sanders, 2020 Election
Sam Tanenhaus is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. He is a former editor of the New York Times Book Review.
Democratic Party elders are bewildered. Don’t voters understand how unpopular Sen. Bernie Sanders is in Washington? “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done,” Hillary Clinton, still smarting from the wound he inflicted on her 2016 presidential campaign, said in January. “It’s all just baloney, and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.” The consequences, the party establishment fears, could be dire: Sanders will be George McGovern all over again — roundly thrashed in the general election by a sinister incumbent, just like the unexpected lefty winner of the 1972 primaries.
Sanders does have a historical forerunner, but it isn’t McGovern. It’s Ronald Reagan.
The comparison looks implausible. The genial, soothing, archconservative Reagan, with his Hollywood polish, script-reading skills and two terms as governor of California, seems a long way from the cantankerous socialist senator, with his accent scraped off the Brooklyn sidewalks and his following formed in tiny, remote, hippie Vermont.
But Reagan was also labeled a fringe figure — of the right, not the left. Mainstream Republicans viewed him with alarm and ridiculed his proposals as simple and kooky. Like Sanders, Reagan shrugged off his detractors. Like Sanders, he bore little allegiance to the party. Like Sanders, he was said to appeal to only a narrow slice of voters. The two have something else in common. Both waged a hard-fought battle in a previous presidential primary contest, seeding their insurgent movements and building bases of young voters undeterred by the candidates’ advanced ages. Reagan was a spoiler turned tribune to a new Republican Party. Sanders, a spoiler in 2016, is on his way to remaking the Democratic Party.
Reagan emerged as a national figure in the 1960s and ’70s, a proud debunker of “the Washington establishment.” His checkered political history included fundraising for an official in the far-right John Birch Society, sharing platforms with Southern segregationists and warning that Medicare (soon to become law) would put the nation on the road to serfdom. Mainstream Republicans were horrified. “Extremist fringe elements seek to expel the rest of us from the GOP,” John Anderson, a high-ranking Republican congressman, warned when Reaganites began to make inroads into the party. “If the purists stage their ideological coup d’etat, our party will be consigned to the historical junk heap.”
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