PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Speaking to Democratic activists over oatmeal and fruit salad Tuesday morning, Bernie Sanders boasted about how much his 2016 presidential platform had resonated with Americans — even though his opponents called ideas like tuition-free college and Medicare for All “wild and crazy and extreme.”
Four years later, no one would use those terms to characterize his stance on impeaching President Trump.
Sanders, running again for president, has aligned himself with those in the Democratic Party urging caution, now that the issue of impeachment has been lobbed into the middle of the 2020 conversation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the release of his redacted report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election last week.
“At the end of the day, what is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not reelected president,” Sanders said during a town hall meeting Monday night aired on CNN. “If for the next year and a half all the Congress is talking about is ‘Trump, Trump, Trump,’ and ‘Mueller, Mueller, Mueller’ and we’re not talking about the issues that concern ordinary Americans, I worry that works to Trump’s advantage.”
For Sanders, it is a major note of pragmatism from a candidate who describes himself as a Democratic socialist and rose to prominence four years ago on bold – critics called them unrealistic – policy ideas like single-payer health care. He continued to brag Tuesday that he took on the whole Democratic establishment in 2016, but his caution on impeachment echoes the establishment’s argument about the political perils of pursuing impeachment.
For now, it’s a stance that also appears to reflect the consternation Mueller’s findings prompted up and down the ranks of the Democratic Party, and the ambivalence even some very liberal voters feel despite their disgust with the president.
“I’m of two minds about it,” said Sheryl Anderson of Sanbornton, N.H.
On the one hand, she believes that “we really need to send a message it’s not okay and not doing something is really letting the country down.” On the other, she fears the inevitable partisan fight impeachment would trigger would consume everything else.
“There are so many important issues for our country. I don’t want all the attention to go to impeachment. We can’t put climate aside for impeachment,” worried Anderson, who supported Sanders in 2016 and ranks him as her favorite candidate now, though she has not yet made up her mind.
“I have mixed feelings about it myself, so I respect Bernie not giving a hard stance on it yet. I kind of trust his thinking,” said Emilia Rainwalker, a Dorchester resident who attended a Sanders organizing event at Cambridge’s folk music mecca, Club Passim, in Harvard Square.
Sanders’s skepticism draws a sharp contrast between himself and the other Democrat in the race most closely aligned with him ideologically: Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren wasted little time declaring that Mueller’s report demanded that House lawmakers start impeachment proceedings against Trump, making her the first of the Democratic primary contestants to unambiguously call for impeachment.
She continued her full-throated support for the move Monday. “There is no political inconvenience exception in the US Constitution,” Warren said during her own turn on the town hall stage.
The issue is dividing the 2020 Democratic candidates and the rest of the country. Among would-be presidents, Kamala Harris of California and the other Massachusetts lawmaker in the race — Seth Moulton of Salem – have also said the House should move forward with impeachment. Others have been more circumspect.
While Democratic leaders in Washington, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, worry about the potential backlash they could face at the ballot box if they overreach on impeachment, the calculus is different for a candidate trying to win the primary – where the people who will determine viability are not middle-of-the-road voters but die-hard activists nurturing intense anti-Trump feelings, said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. He said it was a particularly smart move for Warren to be out in front calling for impeachment, since she has been losing ground in New Hampshire polls.
“She’s in a position where she has to do something to change that dynamic, and something like this, to take advantage of the anger that’s out there among Democratic activists, is something that can get her attention,” and also force other candidates to respond, he said.
For Emmett Soldati, a small business owner and head of the local Democratic committee in Somersworth, N.H., Warren’s impeachment comments are causing him to take a closer look at a candidate who he had known mainly as a consumer advocate, though he remains undecided. Warren’s answer on the impeachment question is the one “that best reflected my values,” he said. “It impressed me to see there’s some moral clarity in Warren’s answer and that’s a big thing I would look for in a president.”
Matt Gianino, an independent from Madbury, N.H., by contrast said he doesn’t think the case has been made for impeachment. As for how the impeachment debate will influence his decision-making as the University of New Hampshire employee continues to check out the field, he said “personally I’m looking more for an executive than an activist, and I feel that the tone around impeachment is more around activism than executive leadership.” But it’s not the number one issue on his mind, he added.
None of the voters who spoke with The Boston Globe said they considered a candidate’s stance on impeachment a make-or-break issue. Indeed, no one at Sanders’s two events in Portsmouth, N.H., and Cambridge Tuesday asked about impeachment. Attendees focused their comments and questions instead on immigration, education, housing, and the availability of yard signs.
That doesn’t mean Trump isn’t on their minds.
“We see in this president an unprecedented threat on democracy,” said Jared Hicks of Dorchester, an organizer and an ardent Sanders supporter. “We have to stop this now, and if that means impeaching him or beating him in the election in 2020, we need to end his presidency.”