- - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

There’s a specter haunting the Democratic Party establishment, the ghost of Norman Thomas, the once-perennial presidential candidate of the American Socialist Party. No one remembers him now, because he was never more than a curiosity. Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian senator from Vermont and a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” is thought to be the frontrunner among the dozens of Democrats seeking the party nomination, though Mr. Sanders is not even a Democrat.

Mr. Sanders, the loser to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries, is tops in fundraising (though he trails substantially behind President Trump). He leads in some national polls, and his closest opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, may not even run. Despite his advanced age, his polling among the young is remarkable. The senator is well positioned in key early states like New Hampshire and Iowa, and winning those early states would give him substantial momentum. A recent town hall debate was deemed, at least by him, a triumph, and delivered good cable-TV ratings.

Party leaders are trying to persuade themselves that the senator is merely a passing fad, the flavor of the month like Beto O’Rourke and Mayor Pete before him. What can be done? They’re asking each other. How do they stop a man approaching 80, from outside the party structure immune to intimidation or incentive and with an unwavering base, without reinforcing his message that the party regulars are out to get him?

“The matter of ‘What To Do About Bernie‘ and the larger imperative of party unity has hovered over a series of previously undisclosed Democratic dinners in New York and Washington organized by the longtime party financier Bernard Schwartz,” The New York Times discloses. “The gatherings have included scores from the moderate or center-left wing of the party, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader; former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., himself a presidential candidate; and the president of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden.”

The establishment fears not only Mr. Sanders‘ socialist ideology but that nominating the senator would endanger what they foolishly view as an easy path to defeating President Trump. In a party where open borders are devoutly wished for, the senator says without apology that borders do matter. The party regulars understandably resent that, while he is running in Democratic primaries, Mr. Sanders remains a proud independent. No Democrat he.

But the harder the regulars pull strings behind the scenes, determined to undermine his rogue candidacy, the more they outrage and energize his fiery band of outsiders. The senator’s supporters are still smarting at how the “neutral” Democratic National Committee favored Hillary Clinton in 2016, and did whatever it could to promote her. Donna Brazile, once the party chief, even leaked debate questions to Mrs. Clinton. The national committee scheduled televised debates at times when nobody was likely to watch. This was meant to help the front-running Clinton campaign and deny oxygen to her challengers.

So what can be done? Probably not much. A lot can happen between now and then, of course, but Bernie Sanders has this week’s best chance of winning the nomination. Such a result might be clarifying. Instead of a triangulating Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar, or eloquent, youthful and insipid Beto O’Rourke or Pete Buttigieg, the voters would get a stark choice, socialism yea or nay.

Mr. Sanders offers ruinous tax rates, a government takeover of health care and “free” college. He promises to enlarge the role of government in a way without precedent in the United States. Who can say for sure which way such a vote would go, but the party regulars are not eager to find out.

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