In the new Wash­ing­ton, there is only far left and far right

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - GLOBE FOCUS - LAWRENCE MARTIN lmartin@globe­and­mail.com

Here is Bernie San­ders, look­ing to be­come pres­i­dent in the year he turns a ten­der 80, bring­ing for­ward a medi­care-forevery­one plank like in Canada. He gets his fel­low Democrats all ex­cited about it. The party’s stars sign up for the so­cial­ist turn.

And here’s king­maker Steve Ban­non, out of the White House but in a 60 Min­utes in­ter­view look­ing every bit as in­flu­en­tial as when he was in it. He’s now styling him­self as “the street­fighter,” the term of­ten used to de­scribe Canada’s Jean Chré­tien back in the days when the Lib­er­als, as na­tivist Mr. Ban­non does to­day, touted eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism.

It was thought that Mr. San­ders was bone­yard-bound po­lit­i­cally af­ter his pri­maries’ in­sur­gency was snuffed out by Hil­lary Clin­ton. It was thought Mr. Ban­non’s ban­ish­ment from Don­ald Trump’s in­ner sanc­tum might spell the end of his re­mark­able Sven­gali-like turn on the Repub­li­can stage.

But the two men are still defin­ing or, if you will, re­defin­ing U.S. pol­i­tics. As in: far right, far left, good­bye mid­dle.

Mr. Ban­non cut quite the fig­ure in his rock ’em, sock ’em 60 Min­utes in­ter­view. Wear­ing not one but two but­ton-down shirts and look­ing as if he hadn’t had a bath since July, he vowed to be Mr. Trump’s wing­man or, more ac­cu­rately, bomb thrower. The tar­get, weirdly enough, isn’t the Democrats so much as his own party.

Mr. Ban­non, who views most tra­di­tional Repub­li­cans with “con­tempt, to­tal and com­plete con­tempt,” vowed to fight in nom­i­na­tion bat­tles to take down en­trenched party mem­bers who don’t ad­here to Mr. Trump’s wall­build­ing na­tion­al­ist, pop­ulist pitch.

Democrats could only grin. Mr. Trump mean­while con­tin­ues his dal­liances with the op­po­si­tion party. Last week, he reached an agree­ment with the Democrats on the debt ceil­ing. This week, they flirt on a deal for ex­tended pro­tec­tions for young un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

By train­ing their sights on their own Repub­li­can flock, Mr. Trump and Mr. Ban­non could shat­ter the party enough to help the Democrats roar back to power. The Trump/Ban­non na­tivist preach­ings – that the coun­try went to hell in a hand bas­ket be­cause of such things as rot­ten trade agree­ments – in­creas­ingly has the look of sophistry.

The ar­gu­ment is that the low 4.4-per-cent un­em­ploy­ment rate doesn’t re­flect the mis­ery of a cit­i­zenry who haven’t shared in the eco­nomic up­turn of re­cent years. But a U.S. Cen­sus Bureau re­port this week said in fact the re­cov­ery was dis­tribut­ing ben­e­fits more broadly, that the me­dian house­hold in­come jumped 3.2 per cent af­ter in­fla­tion last year, that poverty num­bers are de­clin­ing. Mean­while, in­ter­est rates are low, in­fla­tion is low and the stock mar­ket is high.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Ban­non are trapped. They have to ad­here to the tenets of an elec­tion-cam­paign plat­form built on bilge. Oth­er­wise they’ll be seen as prom­ise break­ers.

But if they are do­ing Democrats a favour, Mr. San­ders could be re­turn­ing it by mov­ing his party too far left. Re­ac­tion to his health-care plank showed how strong his in­flu­ence still is. Po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates for 2020 – Elizabeth War­ren, Cory Booker, Ka­mala Har­ris, Kirsten Gil­li­brand – all signed up to sup­port it.

It was cheered on by so­cial­ists as well. David Duhalde, deputy di­rec­tor of Demo­cratic So­cial­ists of Amer­ica, called it a “high­wa­ter mark” for the party.

While the San­ders ideal of uni­ver­sal cov­er­age is laud­able, it poses many risks for the party. Many Democrats fear it will hurt them in swing states in the midterm elec­tions. For Repub­li­cans, the call for so­cial­ized medicine is mu­sic to the ears. One of the few things they still agree on is the need for tax cuts; the San­ders plan would hike the tax bur­den sig­nif­i­cantly.

The Repub­li­cans, with Se­na­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham head­ing the ef­fort, are mak­ing a last-ditch at­tempt to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare. They can now use the San­ders so­cial­ized-medicine plank as a weapon. If we don’t act on Oba­macare, they can ar­gue, look what hap­pens next. You’ll feel the Bern. The so­cial­ist’s tax burn.

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