Though they seem far off, the 2018 midterm elections and subsequent 2020 presidential campaign loom closer than one may realize.
By now, we should see signs that Democratic leaders are rethinking, reorganizing and rebuilding a party that lost enough of the working-class electorate that an unqualified, unhinged reality star slipped into the Oval Office.
But no. By most signs the Democratic Party is still barely piecing itself back together after Hillary Clinton's loss, still sitting without answers to the questions posed by that defeat, still not yet come to terms that it failed in 2016 because it left the working class behind.
Recently, there has been plenty of speculation over who will seek the Democratic Party's nomination in 2020. But none of that speculation fully addresses the elephants in the room above or offers direction at the crossroads the party arrived at on the night of Nov. 8, 2016.
At this moment, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., regardless of any individual opinions about him, seems the only politician on the left with a clear, robust and radically transformative progressive vision for the country's future. Since President Donald Trump took office, the magnetic pull of that vision has only seemed to increase.
But this isn't to say Sanders should be gifted the 2020 nomination. Indeed, nobody should ever be guaranteed a nomination. This is perhaps the most important lesson to take away from 2016.
But even at that, Sanders offers something few in the party can at this stage.
Now, it could be argued that Sanders only has such a well-established, fully rounded vision because he ran in 2016. Hot off of two years of stump speeches, he'd naturally be more prepared than all new potential bidders for executive office. That's a fair counterpoint.
Yet, it's been over a year since the election, and he's still serving as the frontman of the political left and, sometimes, the Democratic Party as a whole. That says something.
Despite not being an actual Democrat, Sanders has repeatedly led the party on several issues, such as healthcare and providing relief for Puerto Rico. Along with sponsoring the most progressive healthcare proposal in recent history, Sanders co-sponsored a $146 billion "Marshall Plan" relief bill with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to help repair the battered U.S. island.
Warren and Sanders have similar agendas and, for the most part, represent a political ideology that is much further to the left than where the party has stood for quite some time. The two have championed grass-roots progressive issues such as reducing wealth inequality through redistributive economic policies and fighting back against predatory financial institutions.
They're positions that have seen them often treated in the press and within the Beltway as maverick outsiders. But it's often overlooked or downplayed just how enjoyed their positions and appeal actually are.
Since the election, Sanders' popularity has surged. Earlier this year, he was named the the country's most popular politician in a Fox News poll, well ahead of his colleagues. He's also beating Trump handily in early 2020 polling. The party itself, however, hit its lowest favorability mark in 25 years last month (though it's still more well regarded than the GOP).
Yet, the party establishment shows no signs of adopting a platform of radical progressive change similar to the one that has made Sanders so popular leading up to and in the wake of Trump's election. Though they want to defeat the 45th president, they have resisted forwarding the sort of agenda that might just make his defeat possible.
Since the election, top party leaders including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have touted their staunch opposition to President Donald Trump's agenda, but have done little to offer up a vision that galvanizes the fractured Democratic base.
There's no denying that many Americans are unhappy with the Democratic Party, with party leadership and with establishment politics as a whole. It's an increasingly common opinion that all three serve the interests of the wealthy few rather than the middle-class majority.
It's been said before — and should continue to be said until an aggressive and suitable agenda is laid out — voters not only need, but deserve, a party that provides them with something to vote for as opposed to a party that merely points its finger at Trump and Republicans and says, "Well, at least we're not that."
Sanders has all that, and yet, is nowhere near the steering wheel.
But contrary to the belief of many Clinton supporters, or those who have projected their election-loss anger onto Sanders and his followers, acknowledging that the senator is the only galvanizing force in the party and following in his path doesn't mean Democrats have to bow down to him as their leader. Few are asking anyone to follow his politics unquestionably. Picking up his vision, his direction, however, is starting to seem essential.
Even before they can settle on a 2020 candidate, the Democrats need a vision they can rally around. Sanders, at the very least, has one. It's a vision, as it turns out, that the most activated voters on the left share (remember those rallies?). Not only that, Sanders has shown an ability to annunciate it, to make it resonate.
If the party doesn't want to move forward with Sanders at the helm, so be it. There are at least a few decent reasons why it may not. After all, Sanders will be 79 in 2020, 83 in 2024.
But it's time to stop acting as if his vision isn't viable, as if the movement it created doesn't offer a model for a promising way forward. Just as important, it's time to stop pretending his campaign was always about him when it was more often than not about what he was fighting for.
Trump is wildly unpopular. Right now, it's not hard to see Democrats as staring at an open goal and not kicking the ball forward. Quite frankly, it's astounding that the party's establishmentarian leadership hasn't been able to recognize the gold mine they are sitting on top of. Bernie 2016 can be a gift to 2020, if the party lets it be.