Perhaps the most striking thing about Jeff Merkley’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders for president was the timing.
Merkley’s decision to become the first of Sanders’ Senate colleagues to support his campaign for the White House came after the race had been going on for months, after Hillary Clinton had built a sizable delegate lead difficult to overcome, and just before her sizable victories in New York, and last week in Pennsylvania and Maryland, had dispatched the contest to the all-over-but-the-shouting category.
But to Merkley, “It’s all about the timing of Oregon’s primary. Two weeks before the ballots go out seemed about the right time.” He’s pleased with “the idea that Oregon will be part of a vibrant competition.”
Besides, the state’s junior senator thinks there’s still a lot of shouting to come.
In his endorsement of Sanders, in an op-ed column in The New York Times, Merkley conceded, “Bernie has an uphill battle ahead of him to win the Democratic nomination.” That’s especially true, he noted more recently, because “People have a strong impetus to be on the winning side.”
Still, he argued in his endorsement that Sanders has “galvanized a grass-roots movement. People know that we don’t just need better policies, we need a wholesale rethinking of how our economy and our politics work, and for whom they work.”
Recently, he explained, “What I think about every day is that for the last 40 years, most of the gains in the economy have gone to the top 10 percent.”
The “wholesale rethinking” to deal with that would include a tougher attitude towards Wall Street – which Merkley urged strongly as a member of the Senate banking committee during the debate over the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill – and Sanders’ support of single-payer universal health care.
Merkley insists that medical overhaul isn’t as implausible as many would think. When the Senate was debating the Affordable Care Act in 2009, he says, there was a point when the entire Democratic caucus supported dropping the Medicare age from 65 to 55. Then one of the senators bailed, and the idea was dropped, but Medicare at 55 would have been a long step toward Sanders’ position.
Recently, Merkley stressed another issue. This Earth Day, he noted, he participated in planting three trees, and was assured that they were species calculated to handle the projected warming of Oregon’s climate over the coming decades. “That was somewhat depressing to me,” Merkley recalled, “how much it would be changing in a single generation.”
Last November, Merkley presented his Leave It In The Ground bill, banning new digging or drilling for fossil fuels on federal land, in a press conference outside the Capitol. He remembers that he invited both presidential candidates, and one showed up – although, he notes wryly, ever since then reporters have referred to the measure as Sanders’ bill.
This still leaves the challenge of imagining Sanders in the Oval Office, or as commander-in-chief – especially since Merkley’s op-ed went out of its way to declare, “Hillary Clinton has a remarkable record. She would be a strong and capable president.”
But Merkley insists that Sanders would be effective in the White House, citing his record in the House – where, Merkley notes, Sanders was known as the “King of Amendments” – and as mayor of Burlington, Vt. – where his achievements included bringing in a minor-league baseball team, which might resonate with some Portlanders. Sanders can expect to appeal generally in Oregon, the kind of state – heavily white, with a particularly liberal Democratic Party – where he has done well.
But if Merkley seems likely to be standing with his state in the Democratic race, he seems unlikely to be standing with the nomination winner. The Washington Post’s politics blogger went so far as to declare Merkley a loser in last week’s primaries since, as the only senator supporting Sanders, he was suddenly a convenient target for media inquiries about Sanders’ problems.
Clinton’s victories in the Northeastern urban states were not exactly surprising, but they did change the race; Wednesday in Indiana, Sanders declared, “If we do not win … we are going to have the votes to put together the strongest progressive agenda that any political party has ever seen.”
Merkley says of the Sanders campaign, “It’s important to capture that energy level, whoever wins the primary.” To do that, “Both sides have to stretch out to each other, on policy and strategy.”
Certainly, Merkley’s late-in-the-game endorsement of Sanders sets out his position on the Oregon primary.
But possibly more significantly, it also sets out his position on this year’s Democratic message.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/1/16.