Unlike most of his Republican analogues, Bernard Sanders is overtly trying to harness his senatorial work this fall to the service of his presidential campaign.
The evidence goes beyond his presence on the Senate floor, though on that front he stands out. Of the five senators trying to win the White House, the Vermont independent running as a Democrat has missed the fewest votes: Just 14 this year, as of Tuesday, for a 95 percent attendance rate. Three of his colleagues running for the GOP nomination have missed 75 or more roll calls. (The exception is Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who’s only skipped five more ballots than Sanders.)
Merely showing up for work is hardly a predictor of success, of course. (Barack Obama made only 62 percent of the Senate votes the year before winning the presidency.) But it’s part of what helps Sanders to ward-off the sort of the criticism that has dogged Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, who’s missed the most votes by far, and Ted Cruz of Texas, whose campaign has emphasized his disdain for the Senate's ways under the management by his own party.
In contrast, Sanders is using the power of Senate incumbency to advance causes that highlight themes of his national campaign — that the Washington game is rigged to benefit the moneyed heavyweights at the expense of the little guy, and he’s the candidate to turn that balance of power on its head. “That’s kind of what I’m paid to do,” he said on MSNBC last week about his attendance, adding that, “while it is difficult and very time-consuming to be a full-time candidate and to be a full-time senator, that is at the moment what I'm trying to do.”
To that end, fresh off a campaign rally in Cleveland Monday afternoon, Sanders was on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee dais Tuesday morning, injecting a note of populist drama into what’s expected to be the relatively straightforward promotion of Robert M. Califf to head the Food and Drug Administration.
“People are dying and not buying the food they need because they have to pay outrageous prices for medicine,” Sanders told Califf, reiterating opposition he announced last month. “We have been extraordinarily weak at taking on the pharmaceutical industry that has been ripping off the American people. I believe we need a commissioner who is going to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and protect American consumers. You are not that person.”
Califf became deputy FDA commissioner in February, after running a center at Duke University that conducts clinical trials for drug companies. It’s a background Sanders views as disqualifying, though almost all Democrats disagree and look highly likely to provide sufficient votes for confirmation.
The senator has more senatorial allies for the other cause that’s won him a spurt of “earned media” from the congressional press corps in recent weeks: His effort to obtain higher wages and union representation for the cafeteria workers on the Senate side of the Capitol.
Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is a centerpiece of the Sanders platform, and when selling that idea he often points to the economic hardship of Senate food service workers trying to live in less in the Washington area.
And last week, he got 32 Democratic senators to sign his letter urging the Compass Group — which owns Restaurant Associates, the company that runs the food service — to embrace unionization without requiring the workers to complete the usual petitioning process.
The past year of protests by the cafeteria workers “against low wages and poor working conditions,” the Sanders letter said, “have attracted negative publicity not only to your company but also to the institution of the Senate.” He added that the Senate “should serve as a model employer, and the workers who support the work of the U.S. Senate must be given the respect and opportunities they deserve.”
The senator has also used the bully pulpit of the Senate floor on several occasions in the past month to highlight differences with his main rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, mainly to position himself to her left on social issues.
In late October, only hours after Clinton told a New Hampshire town hall she supports the death penalty in “certain egregious cases,” Sanders went to his desk in the well and declared “the time is now for the United States to end capital punishment” because the government “should itself not be involved in the murder of other Americans.”
And two weeks ago, Sanders introduced a bill to end the federal criminalization of marijuana and permit states to decide whether to legalize its recreational or medicinal use. Clinton has proposed loosening federal restrictions and increasing research into pot’s medical benefits, but she remains opposed to legalization.
On that front, the former secretary of State and senator from New York remains closer to the sentiment of Senate Democrats, not one of whom has endorsed the Sanders legislation. None of the Vermonter’s Senate colleagues has endorsed his presidential campaign , while 33 of the 45 others in the Democratic Caucus are formally backing Clinton. (So are 124 House Democrats, compared with just two in the Sanders camp, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona.)
Those rosters of supporters underscore a continuing truth about the Sanders campaign: He’s a lifelong political independent who’s running as a Democrat for entirely practical reasons , and all his efforts to use his standing as a congressional insider to promote his personality as an establishment outsider may only carry him so far.
Related: Labor Group Sees 'Pattern of Retaliation' Against Food Workers See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.