WASHINGTON — In recent months, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ political team has noticed a marked shift in the 80-year-old former presidential candidate: His campaign fires are burning hot.
On Thursday, Sanders, I-Vt., will travel to Pittsburgh to headline a rally for Summer Lee, one of a half-dozen hard-core progressives he has endorsed in contested Democratic congressional primaries. He also plans to meet with Starbucks workers in the city to show solidarity in a store-by-store unionization push.
And, more than two years out from the 2024 election, the iconoclastic Sanders is having private discussions about the possibility of making a third bid for the Oval Office — with the caveat that he would do so only if President Joe Biden reverses course and chooses not to run — according to people close to him.
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Faiz Shakir, who managed Sanders' 2020 campaign, said promoting progressive candidates and causes can be an end in itself or a launching pad for the next race: "You can do both," he said in an interview.
All of that might be unremarkable if Sanders were shadow boxing himself against the backdrop of an inevitable Biden re-election bid.
Instead, he is just the most openly ambitious of an emerging field of Democratic hopefuls who are positioning themselves to run if Biden doesn't, more than a dozen Democratic insiders said in interviews. Most of them weren't authorized to speak on the record or insisted on anonymity to avoid upsetting one or more of the potential candidates.
The set of would-be contenders is widely viewed as including Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, according to Democratic sources.
As vice president, Harris is naturally seen as the most likely to jump in if Biden steps aside.
Buttigieg is heading to Minnesota next month to headline the state party’s annual fundraising dinner, a rare appearance for a Cabinet secretary. Newsom recently assailed Democrats for their messaging on abortion after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would reverse the 50-year ban on states' outlawing the procedure. And last month, Warren took her party to task for failing to move its agenda faster before the midterms, implicitly castigating Biden and party moderates.
"They are definitely jockeying and positioning," said a top adviser on a past Democratic presidential campaign who, like others, insisted on anonymity to avoid angering Biden and his aides.
Another veteran party operative who doesn't share that view said, "There's a working assumption among a lot of people that the president is not going to run for re-election."
Indeed, it isn't universally held. Biden, who has run three times and flirted with bids dating to the 1980 election, insists he will seek a second term.
Still, the jostling points to a deepening frustration within the party over Biden's inability — and, in some cases, unwillingness — to execute on his own agenda. Some Democratic leaders believe they could do a better job fighting for the party's priorities, and they are starting to voice that opinion publicly.
That raises the possibility — although no prospective candidate has said it — that Biden could face credible opposition in a primary. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic president to fail to win renomination, as he withdrew from contention amid the Vietnam War and collapsing support within his party.
While Biden remains more popular than Johnson with Democrats, the shuffling beneath him can't help but be destabilizing.
The top adviser on a past presidential campaign said potential hopefuls are inflicting damage on fellow Democrats, most notably Biden.
"It looks like Warren, Newsom and some of the others are looking to run down Biden and the party, which is unhelpful," he said. "It’s like they’re on the Titanic and they’re sending out for more icebergs."
For ambitious Democratic politicians, there's a risk in waiting too long to draw a contrast with a president whose approval rating is mired in the low 40s and for whom it would be counterproductive to turn himself into a lame duck any earlier than necessary.
In other words, there’s more harm in failing to prepare than in getting ready to run.
"Some people are looking at this and going, 'Listen, we’re not 100 percent sure what’s going to happen,'" said Mark Longabaugh, a longtime Democratic strategist who once worked for Sanders. "If Biden decides he’ll run again in 2024, then all you’re doing is you’re advancing the ball toward ’28.”
In mid-April, Warren, who ran in 2020, wrote a New York Times column imploring her party to push harder for progressive change now.
"If we fail to use the months remaining before the elections to deliver on more of our agenda, Democrats are headed toward big losses in the midterms," Warren warned.
Three days later, Shakir, Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager, circulated a memo advising about 20 allies of Sanders' plans for the midterms and the possibility that he would run in 2024 if Biden doesn't. Sanders signed off on the memo, which quickly surfaced in the media.
If Sanders and Warren hadn't become bitter adversaries on the campaign trail in 2020, the one-two punch might have looked like a coordinated bolstering of the progressive wing of the party. Instead, Democratic insiders see them tussling for position.
Warren is focused on her 2024 Senate re-election bid, according to people close to her. But some of them acknowledge that the same actions — raising money, endorsing candidates and raising her profile on progressive issues — would be the predicate for a presidential bid.
If she decides to run, a longtime ally said, the moves she's making now "would be helpful." The ally said her experience in 2020 means she would be ready to put together an organization quickly.
"Her people are still there, for good or for bad," the person said. "They don't need to build an infrastructure" well in advance of a race.
Warren has stepped up her public engagement in recent weeks. While Democrats have generally tried to stay out of primaries, Warren has offered her endorsement in competitive races in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.
Some Warren allies say that she stands out because she's forcefully advocating for progressive values and policies when others are not.
"She should be one of the chorus, and it's unfortunate that more Democrats — including those with a White House podium in front of them — aren't showing that type of passion," said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has long supported Warren. Green spoke of a frustration with Biden, saying he hasn't used his bully pulpit in a manner consistent with the crises facing the party.
And said Warren's passionate speech, including one she made in front of the Supreme Court after the Roe draft opinion was leaked, is more a reflection of the moment Democrats face than her positioning for future office.
"Joe Biden is president of the United States and has every right to walk softly and carry a big stick and use his bully pulpit aggressively, and we are hopeful that he will do that between now and the election, but it's not happening right now," Green said.
"It's unfortunate Elizabeth Warren is, in the most literal sense, exceptional by using her platform to show passion at this moment that so many rights, from women's right to choose to our core democratic rights, are being taken away from us. We need more of that from Democrats."
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who has interest in running in 2028 or thereafter, said he believes Biden is likely to run and would be tough to beat in a primary. But if he doesn't, he said, Sanders would be well-situated for another bid.
“I do think the third time may be the charm,” said Khanna, who was a national co-chairman of Sanders’ 2020 campaign. “He’s a revolutionary on progressive policy. ... His populist economics need to be front and center in the midterms and beyond to channel the anger that people have at Washington.”
Newsom may have the most complicated calculus, because he has said he won't run against Harris, a former senator from his state. That, according to a person who knows him well, means he would look at a race only if Biden ran and had serious competition from elsewhere within the party.
But he is engaging in national politics and criticizing his own party.
"Where is the Democratic Party?” Newsom asked as he warned that the draft Supreme Court opinion was a wake-up call to launch a "counteroffensive" against conservatives who would roll back federal privacy protections long guaranteed by the high court. “Why aren’t we standing up more firmly? More resolutely? Why aren’t we calling this out?”
The person who knows him well pointed to his remarks about abortion as evidence that he is eager to get ahead of the party's national leaders on politically contentious issues.
"He clearly has presidential ambitions," the source said. "He's posturing and getting ready to position himself."
Klobuchar has long kept her own counsel, and people close to her say they don't know whether she would run if Biden doesn't. One of them said any political moves she makes — which included a recent visit to New Hampshire, the longtime site of the country's first primary — should be seen in the light of a perpetual effort to solidify her political standing.
"Amy's being Amy," said a former adviser who played down the idea that Klobuchar is maneuvering for a run. "She's going to position herself. ... In Amy's mind, there's always that political calculus of 'how can I step up and be in the middle'" of national politics?
That's all most of the prospective candidates can do for now: raise their profiles, build their fundraising lists and collect chits by working to elect fellow Democrats in the midterms. And wait on Biden.