Bernie Sanders now has a seat at Senate Democrats’ leadership table, ensuring the liberal icon will have a voice as Democrats decide how to cooperate or take on Donald Trump in the White House.
How influential a voice that will be is anyone’s guess.
His new role as “outreach chair” remains fraught with uncertainty that could create tensions within the Democratic ranks. Elizabeth Warren joined leadership after the party’s 2014 electoral losses as a strategic policy advisor in a gesture also seen as acknowledging the influence of the left, raising the specter of competition between two liberal giants.
Beyond that, no one could fully explain what Sanders’ new post, announced on Wednesday, will entail.
The target of Sanders’ outreach efforts also remains unclear, though he is expected to lay out some broad priorities for the role in a speech at George Washington University on Wednesday night that will be live-streamed to his millions-strong network of loyal supporters. A senior Democratic aide said Sanders would do more than serve as a conduit between leadership and liberal groups.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said he hopes to see Democrats make renewed appeals to unions as they work to rebuild their footing in the Rust Belt, where Trump cut into the party’s traditional base by raging against free-trade deals.
“Labor is a key constituency,” Peters said, “and we have to make sure we’re actively outreaching to rank-and-file members of unions across the country.”
Sanders will also be joined on the leadership team by his polar opposite on many policy debates, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who’s itching to work with Trump.
“We’ve got to get things done,” Manchin told reporters. “We’re going to accept what he puts out there, see if it makes sense, and see if we can make it better.”
Sanders himself said last week that he is “prepared to work with” the president-elect, so long as Trump avoids “racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies.” The Vermonter followed his leadership elevation by slamming Trump’s appointment of “racist individual” Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist, signaling he would not shy away from going on the attack.
In addition to Sanders and Manchin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) also joined a leadership slate that’s growing from seven to 10 members, with Chuck Schumer replacing Harry Reid at the helm. Sanders brings Schumer the vast grassroots network he amassed during his presidential run, as well as a credible messenger of the anti-establishment economic populism that Trump rode to the presidency.
“Real change doesn’t take place on Capitol Hill,” Sanders said in a statement on his new leadership post. “It takes place in grassroots America. It takes place when millions of working people, young people and senior citizens come together to demand that our government works for all of us and not just the 1 percent.”
Sanders began making a public play to join the leadership table two days after Hillary Clinton lost to Trump. The senator made no secret of his desire to lead Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee next year, where he could focus on some of the economic equality issues that animated his presidential run, but his path there was blocked by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) – herself named the No. 3 Democratic leader on Wednesday.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) indirectly praised Schumer for steering around that Sanders-Murray dynamic on Wednesday.
“The expansion of the leadership team is a reaction to some people who may have wanted to be ranking members on some committees and didn’t get it,” Carper said.
Despite his ascension to the leadership ranks, Sanders won’t be officially joining the party that hosted his run for president. An aide said Wednesday that he would serve out the remaining two years of his term as an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
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