Opinion: Is Bernie Sanders Donald Trump’s secret weapon?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is still bitter about the primary fight and is becoming Donald Trump’s secret weapon. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

It’s three and one half years until the 2020 presidential election, and the Democrats are already showing signs of blowing it.

The culprit? Bernie Sanders.

After the Democratic National Committee concluded its meeting with the selection of for Obama Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, the outcome seemed unifying enough, especially since Perez nominated Sanders-backed Congressman Keith Ellison for the number two spot in the party leadership.

But that wasn’t enough for Sanders, who is still steaming from his presidential nomination loss to Hillary Clinton last year as well his treatment by the party organization.

Less than 24 hours after the meeting, Sanders showed the extent of his resentment. When asked whether he would share his email donor list with the DNC, Sanders said instead he would use his list to selectively support progressive Democratic candidates mirroring his positions.

This is the first step of assuring a new round of divisiveness in the Democratic Party. That’s the last thing the party needs.

Ironically, since his DNC election a month ago, Perez has tilted increasingly to the progressive wing. He has praised the Women’s March for their activism, condemned Trump’s executive order on new labor rules and lambasted the president for seeking to deny working Americans affordable health insurance. Yet, Sanders has not shown any signs of collaborating.

Email and mailing donor lists are particularly critical to the Democratic Party, which relies on small donations by spirited donors. Barack Obama became the model for soliciting small donors via the internet in 2008; they accounted for $96 million, 22 percent of his fundraising effort. That makes Sanders’ email list extremely valuable to the Democratic Party, and he knows it.

The leadership shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Sanders established a precedent of sorts last year. As a registered Independent, he pursued the Democratic nomination. This precedent no doubt flummoxed the party establishment.

The only reason they didn’t balk outright at the odd arrangement was that they wanted to capture the money and energy from the Sanders wing once Clinton sealed the nomination. But for Sanders, the damage was already done. He made it clear last August that he wouldn’t turn over his email list to the DNC, even as the Clinton campaign began to fray. He is continuing with that plan today.

The Democrats have their hands full. Of the 33 U.S. Senate seats up for grabs in 2018, they must defend 25. Of the 37 governorships at stake in 2017 and 2018, the Democrats control only nine. If they hope to make a serious challenge for the presidency in 2020, they must build their infrastructure now. The party can’t succeed without truly unifying.

Some of the problem is the composition of the two major parties. Republican values tend to run from moderate conservative to libertarian. Democrats share a wider political spectrum, ranging from moderate conservatives to ultra-liberal. Finding a candidate that can bring them together is a much more difficult task.

None of this has slipped by President Donald Trump. Catapulted to the presidency by promoting divisiveness, Trump couldn’t be more thrilled by Sanders’ move. Trump has even praised Sanders for his independence and attempted to show an alliance of sorts on opposition to foreign trade arrangements.

One of oldest concepts in politics focuses on the dilemma of winning a battle in the midst of losing a war. Should Sanders hold out with his email list, Democrats will encounter intra-party factionalism they cannot afford. Sanders may take solace in keeping his list, but he may play a large part in preventing the Democrats from being competitive in 2020.

Larry N. Gerston is professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University and the author of “Reviving Citizen Engagement: Policies to Renew National Community.” He wrote this for The Mercury News.

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