Despite his victory Tuesday night in the New Hampshire primary, Bernie Sanders still faces an uphill climb to win the Democratic nomination and if successful could well lose to President Trump this fall. Yet even in defeat, the first self-declared socialist in American history to have a realistic chance at both prizes is likely to achieve a different kind of victory, one few actual presidents ever have: transforming the ideology and program of a major party.
In fact, those candidates who manage to shift the party decisively are often not the ones who win the White House itself.
In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, running as a Democrat against William McKinley, traveled the nation denouncing “the money power” and defending the rights of labor. Despite his loss that year, and in two subsequent races, his party embraced the pro-regulation, antimonopoly, pro-union stand of this eloquent politician called “the Great Commoner.” The resulting policies did much to elect Woodrow Wilson to the White House twice (with Bryan as his secretary of state from 1913 to 1915) and Franklin Roosevelt four times.
In 1972, Senator George McGovern suffered a landslide drubbing in his attempt to persuade voters who detested the war in Vietnam to unseat Richard Nixon. Yet since then, most activist Democrats have effectively echoed McGovern’s plea to “Come Home, America.” Like him, they oppose nearly every armed intervention overseas and advocate shrinking the military budget.
In 1988, Jesse Jackson thrilled crowds with denunciations of the “economic violence” committed by big corporations that moved factories to lands where labor was cheap and unions impotent. Nearly three decades before Bernie Sanders decided to run for president, Mr. Jackson, the leader of what was then the National Rainbow Coalition and the first black candidate to win millions of votes, was vigorously preaching the same gospel of national health insurance, jobs for all and higher taxes on the rich.
Just one Republican insurgent has wielded such influence after his run for the White House ended in defeat: Senator Barry Goldwater. But his campaign may have been the most consequential of them all. In 1964, Goldwater had the temerity to advocate rolling back the welfare state built by Franklin Roosevelt and his successors, and he accused liberal Democrats of weakening the nation’s resolve in the Cold War. He was also one of just six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act that year.
But Goldwater’s 20-point loss to Lyndon Johnson failed to discourage his conservative admirers. They went on to build a mighty movement that captured the Republican Party in 1980 and has never let go. While the Republican right has, often grudgingly, acquiesced to federal enforcement of civil rights, it continues to emulate Goldwater’s blend of laissez-faire economics and support for a robust national security state.
All these partisan rebels had something in common besides their prophetic influence. Each stirred great enthusiasm among voters but also met stiff resistance within their parties, a major reason none came close to taking the White House. All were protest candidates against the party establishments of their day, and the establishments fought back.
In 1896, conservative Democrats loyal to the outgoing incumbent, Grover Cleveland, condemned Bryan’s talk of bashing big business and even mounted a third-party ticket they knew would help the Republican nominee. In 1972, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., headed by George Meany, blasted McGovern as “an apologist for the communist world” whose delegates were “kooks and nuts.” After McGovern was nominated, the labor body, the indispensable pillar of the New Deal coalition, refused to endorse anyone for president. The decision broke a tradition of backing Democratic nominees that stretched back almost four decades.
At the 1964 Republican convention, Goldwater’s “extremist” admirers loudly booed his moderate critics, and the intraparty bitterness provoked many lifelong Republicans to vote for Johnson that fall. For his part, Jesse Jackson, despite winning over a thousand delegates in 1988, came in second for the nomination to Michael Dukakis, whose bland rhetoric and cautious promises contrasted sharply with his rival’s rousing style and left-wing policies.
In his acceptance speech that summer, Dukakis declared: “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.” That line not only failed to win him enough votes to prevent the Republicans, under George H.W. Bush, from winning a third straight easy victory. It also betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how major changes have always occurred in our country.
Americans who are seriously disenchanted with an incumbent president or his party tend to be moved more by a serious candidate who offers a sharply different alternative, one based on a set of moral convictions, instead of merely a sense of who might be a more efficient administrator of the existing order. Such voters are usually most numerous among the young. After their candidate loses, the fervent hopes he (and someday, she) inspired continue to motivate followers to convert their party to the same ideas and chart a path to future victory.
Since he began running for president five years ago, Senator Sanders and his supporters have nudged Democrats to take stands to the left of where the center of the party was when Barack Obama moved out of the White House. Every remaining candidate for president now endorses either Medicare for All or a robust public option, doubling the minimum wage, much higher taxes on the rich, legislation to facilitate union organizing and a transition to an economy based on sources of renewable energy. Even if the delegates in Milwaukee this summer choose a different nominee, they will surely endorse such policies and make them central to the drive to make Donald Trump a one-term president.
So whatever his electoral fate, the socialist from Vermont who is pushing 80 is likely to be remembered as a more transformative figure than many politicians who won an election but whom most Americans were quite glad to put behind them. Mr. Sanders wants to be the next Franklin Roosevelt — but if he can’t, better to be the next William Jennings Bryan or Jesse Jackson than the next William Howard Taft.”