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Next Act: What Bernie Sanders Will Do If He Loses

He'll be top shepherd, or scold, of next president's fiscal plans

If he fails in his presidential bid, Bernie Sanders could return to an important role in the Senate.  (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
If he fails in his presidential bid, Bernie Sanders could return to an important role in the Senate.  (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Now it’s looking highly likely that Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential campaign’s potential supernova spoiler, is going to have to settle for reclaiming his old identity as Sen. Bernard Sanders, Independent of Vermont.  

Pretty soon, it will be time to gently ask what he plans to do with the rest of his congressional life. Fortunately for him, there are meaningful options. Sanders must win two-thirds of the delegates that remain up for grabs in order to defeat Hillary Clinton, an extremely difficult if not statistically impossible task that starts with Tuesday’s relatively small-beer contests in Arizona, Idaho and Utah.  

He has vowed to remain in the hunt through the final primaries in June. But if he doesn’t engineer one of the greatest upsets in American presidential history — and assuming she does nothing to alienate her rival or infuriate his supporters — then Sanders can be counted on to go “all in” for Clinton after she’s cinched the nomination.  

Doing so would be in his enlightened self-interest. Sanders is at a point in his career that’s quite different from Donald Trump’s remaining rivals, disdains-where-he-now-works Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and lame-duck Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. Since both are getting ready to move on if they can’t move up, they’re not putting much personal political capital at risk if they contest the Republican nomination to the bitterest end.  

Sanders has plenty at stake. If he toes his newly-adopted party’s line, even minimally, in the general election campaign, he’s almost guaranteed an A-level assignment in the next Congress.  

By virtue of seniority, and his willingness to belong to the Democratic Caucus, Sanders has the party’s top seat on the Budget Committee. Now he’s the ranking minority member, a job of minimal import in a year when the GOP majority isn’t even trying to move a budget blueprint through the Senate. But he’d be chairman in 2017 if Democrats win back control, which now looks probable.  

With or without the gavel, though, he’d be pressed into service early on as one of the White House’s most essential helpmates if Clinton becomes president. Whatever changes in spending priorities, entitlement programs or the tax system she proposes would get their first tests of support at the Budget panel — right about one year from now, probably.  

Sanders would have more automatic influence than he’s ever had as he tried to shift a new administration’s fiscal policies to the left, and then it would fall to him to take the lead in finding the votes to move Clinton’s fiscal policies advanced through the starting gate.  

He’d have an inverse, but also important, role if the 45th president is a Republican. Then Sanders would become the defensive coordinator instead of the quarterback. If he could not stop or even soften a budget resolution embodying the president’s ideas, he would still be a marquee voice in the chorus of Democratic critics hoping to sway public opinion enough to undermine the GOP approach.  

One question is which of those missions, if any, would entice him to stand for a third term in 2018, when he’ll turn 77.  

He’d enter that race as the overwhelming favorite, at least if his 86 percent showing in the Vermont presidential primary this month is any indication. (One person this sets him apart from is Marco Rubio, whose GOP presidential quest ended with last week’s primary drubbing in Florida, where he’d earned a reputation as such an ambitious but absentee senator that he’d have faced a tough bid for a second term in November had he wanted one).  

The next question is whether Sanders has honed the legislative personality required for such high-profile work.  

As a House member for 16 years, and a senator for almost a decade since, he’s left enough evidence to argue that either way. Fans point to a roster of amendments he succeeded in attaching to important bills, even when those measures were mainly the handiwork of Republicans, as proof he’s been underestimated as a legislative tactician and bipartisan dealmaker.  

Detractors say those achievements have almost all been modest or tangential, and that for every one of those wins there are examples of him putting populist posturing ahead of striking a bargain.  

One of the smallest clubs in American politics is made up of senators who have faced voters in a presidential race, come up short and then returned in search of sustained satisfaction at the Capitol. Just 19 have taken that route in the past four decades. Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who suspended his campaign for GOP nomination last week, said he will not pursue re-election.  

But the good news is that most of them have gone on to pretty powerful and productive lives.  

For one thing, they’ve stayed in the Senate an average of nine years after first suspending their presidential quests. Beyond that, two (Howard Baker and Bob Dole) became Senate GOP majority leader, two others (Democrats Al Gore and Joseph R. Biden Jr.) became vice president and four became Cabinet members.  

Most important for Sanders, a dozen vanquished presidential contenders since 1976 have gone on to exercise genuine power as Senate committee chairmen. (The roster includes John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 GOP nominee who’s now holding the gavel at Armed Services, and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, now in charge of Finance and a 2000 dropout after finishing dead last in Iowa.)  

As Sanders contemplates life once his national aspirations are extinguished – maybe even including one of those prominent chairmanships — he’ll soon have to deal with a blemish on his recent record.  

After distinguishing himself last year as the presidential candidate most demonstrably committed to his Senate day job (he missed only 8 percent of the floor votes), in 2016 Sanders has been almost entirely missing in action. Three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, he was on the losing end of a roll call that scuttled legislation mandating an audit of the Federal Reserve. He’s been absent for every one of the other three-dozen recorded votes this year.  


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