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Bernie Sanders is the leader America needs now. Just NOT by running for president in 2020 | Will Bunch

A divisive run for the White House will only hurt Sanders' bold progressive agenda.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during a campaign rally for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) in Milwaukee on Oct. 22, 2018.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during a campaign rally for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) in Milwaukee on Oct. 22, 2018.Read moreDaniel Acker

It was never going to break through the loud pot-banging of the 24/7 TV-news cycle -- not in a week when the president of the United States is facing credible allegations that he’s doing Russia’s bidding from the White House -- but there’s a new idea in Washington that could have a real impact on your life and your pocketbook, by seeking to dramatically lower the price you pay for prescription drugs.

And if you’ve been paying attention to U.S. politics the last few years, it won’t surprise you to hear that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was at the center of it.

“If the pharmaceutical industry will not end its greed, which is literally killing Americans, then we will end it for them.” Sanders said in rolling out the innovative proposal that aims to force Big Pharma to charge Americans the same prices as in other developed nations where a trip to the drugstore is considerably cheaper. “The United States pays by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. This has created a health-care crisis in which 1 in 5 American adults cannot afford to get the medicine they need.”

It was a pure Bernie moment, but what’s remarkable about the 77-year-old leader of the democratic socialist movement in the country is how many of these moments there have been in the two-plus years since he rocked the American body politic with an upstart Democratic presidential bid that captured 23 primary or caucus victories against the heavily favored Hillary Clinton. After falling short, no one would have blamed the septuagenarian senator for enjoying the fall foliage on Lake Champlain, cashing the royalty checks from his inevitable best-selling book and playing with his grandkids.

Instead, Sanders has crusaded for progressive causes with the energy of a 27-year-old, and scored some real victories -- most notably when he hectored the world’s richest man (for now) Jeff Bezos to pay Amazon’s workers a $15 hourly living wage, and the massive online retailer did exactly that. That was an amazing win at a moment when the GOP still controlled the entire government.

The Vermonter has also been a leading critic of America’s ungodly role in prolonging the war and sparking a large-scale humanitarian crisis in Yemen, gaining bipartisan support for ending the conflict. No political figure has been a stronger advocate for labor, including bringing the power of unions to the Deep South. In 2018 alone, Sanders introduced bills that would end cash bail and break up the most powerful U.S. banks, and continued his fight for a Medicare-for-all universal health-care system. His supporters see that agenda not just as the progressive policies that America needs right now, but as the foundation of another White House bid in 2020.

But here’s the thing: Bernie Sanders absolutely should NOT run for president again.

While his 2016 run was electrifying, historic and changed the direction of American politics, I believe a 2020 bid would prove divisive and could tarnish his legacy. It would also ignore the reality that the senator clearly has a lot more to give his country -- but as the spiritual and intellectual leader of the movement that he’s built over a half-century, not as an Oval Office hopeful.

This is a very, very hard thing for me to write. After all, I’m the guy who (for 30 days, anyway) changed my longtime voter registration from independent to Democrat just so I could vote for Sanders in the Pennsylvania primary. Here’s what I wrote, specifically, in the spring of 2016: “On April 26, I am going to vote for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as if my life depended on it. It’s just that important.” The previous fall, with the cadences of the late, great Hunter S. Thompson ringing in my ears, I’d followed Sanders around the country and talked to scores of his supporters to produce an e-book that tried to capture the revolutionary fervor of his movement.

In my piece urging a 2016 Sanders vote, I praised the fact that the senator had managed to form an idealistic vision of a better America during the 1960s and clung to that in the face of the kind of pressures that cause most politicians to sell out their principles. Three years later, Bernie still hasn’t changed. But something else important has changed: The times. The zeitgeist, if you will.

This weekend, Sanders' still dedicated legion of followers hosted a slew of house parties -- about 400 in all -- with the goal of fomenting excitement for a 2020 bid. That didn’t get much news coverage. I did find one Boston Globe reporter who dropped by the Sanders house party in Nashua, N.H., and talked to the 10 people gathered there, but who found more enthusiasm -- and some of Sanders' 2016 supporters -- at a Sen. Elizabeth Warren rally nearby. One 2016 Sanders backer, Jessi Hull, told the Globe she was undecided but was wearing a T-shirt reading “She Persisted,” the Warren catchphrase that was one of many moments that energized women voters moving toward a 2018 midterm Democratic House landslide.

In 2016, Sanders took on an important mission that no one else would: To challenge big money in politics and the corporate oligarchy. In 2019, many of his formerly radical ideas about single-payer health care, universal college education and a $15 minimum wage are now Democratic orthodoxy, but there’s something else in the air: A sense that white dudes from the baby-boomer-and-older generation have been running things for far too long, and that America needs some new blood.

The hopes and excitement of 2015 and early 2016 melted into bitterness when the autocratic Donald Trump grabbed the White House -- bitterness that has also, to borrow a phrase, nevertheless persisted. I see it online every day. Only a fairly unified Democratic Party is guaranteed of ousting Trump in 2020, and Sanders is now seen -- arguably unfairly -- as a divisive, polarizing figure. Yes, he’s currently second in those (pretty meaningless) early Democratic beauty contest polls behind another, almost-as-old white dude, Joe Biden, but Sanders also has the largest number of Democrats who do not want him to run at all (unless you count a highly unlikely Hillary 2020 campaign).

That’s because a decent number of the 65 million who voted for Hillary in November 2016 have assigned at least partial blame to Bernie for saddling America with The Donald. Again, I think that’s unfair -- Sanders gave Clinton an unqualified endorsement, campaigned for her, and 88 percent of his backers (like me) voted for Clinton in the general election. That’s higher than the percentage of 2008 Hillary primary voters who cast ballots for Barack Obama in that year’s general election. But reality is fundamentally unfair. And the reality is that too many people would use a 2020 Sanders campaign to waste ridiculous time refighting 2016, when Americans so desperately need to rally behind ousting our pro-Putin wannabe dictator from the White House.

And I believed these things before the discouraging revelations of recent days that the Sanders 2016 campaign was ridden with a misogynistic, “boys-club” culture that both encouraged and ignored sexual harassment and abuse. Some of these allegations hit very close to my home here in the Philadelphia region. In one allegation, a Sanders aide forcibly kissed a female staffer at a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah bar in Center City during the 2016 Democratic convention. At that same confab, my friend Gwen Snyder reported she was groped by a fellow Sanders delegate, and the campaign never followed up on a promise of support.

Sanders himself isn’t accused of any personal misconduct. That’s a marked contrast from the confessed female-genital-grabber who currently lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But the candidate is responsible for the culture of the campaign, and these #MeToo revelations are a terrible look for Team Sanders. Any Bernie 2020 momentum that was meant to be gained from this weekend’s house parties was more than undercut by the senator’s need to apologize not once but twice for the misogyny of his 2016 campaign.

The #MeToo movement -- while, in many ways, transcending politics -- was nonetheless central to the energy that was the Women’s March in 2017, the House election that made Nancy Pelosi speaker in 2018, and to the strong effort on the ground that the Democrats so desperately need if they hope to win in 2020. Instead of riding the winds of resurgent feminism, Sanders and his would-be White House bid are pushing against that storm. That’s simply not going to work. And it’s on top of other distractions -- from his wife Jane’s mismanagement of Burlington College to his 2016 campaign strategist Tad Devine’s work with Paul Manafort and the unsolicited support for Sanders from Russian bots -- that would make the 2020 vibe very different from the last time.

The good news for Bernie Sanders is you don’t need to be president to change America in ways that will be remembered for generations to come. Just ask Al Gore, who lost the White House only to win a Nobel Peace Prize for raising climate-change awareness, or John Kerry, another just-missed candidate who then negotiated a peace deal with Iran, or John McCain, whose recent passing inspired honors and tributes as great or greater than many presidents, past or present.

Sanders already occupies such a lofty place in American history. The values that he’s fought for over 50-plus years -- sometimes virtually alone -- are the current gift of the progressive movement and almost certainly the future of this nation. And he can best serve the goals of a more equitable and more just America by doing exactly what he’s done these last two years -- using his skill as a lawmaker and his bully pulpit as the unquestioned leader of democratic socialism to bring that agenda home. Instead of damaging that legacy with an ill-advised White House bid, Sanders can use the new six-year Senate term he won in November to cement his legacy -- not as a president but as a patriot who changed America for good.