Senators, including those known for writing legislation, don’t have the best record winning their campaigns for president.
Still, the Democrats opposing independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bid for their party’s presidential nomination have made the case that Sanders won’t make a good president because he hasn’t been a good senator.
“Bernie, in fact, hasn’t passed much of anything,” former Vice President Joe Biden said at the Democratic debate in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 25, of Sanders’ nearly three decades in Congress: 16 years in the House and 13 in the Senate.
It’s a charge Sanders and his supporters have taken pains to rebut, but the record shows that Sanders is not among the noted legislative craftsmen of his generation. And notably for a candidate running, in part, as a scourge of the Democratic establishment, Sanders is no maverick. If he hasn’t written many bills, neither has he crossed his party to stop them.
Sanders, in his Senate career, was stuck. As one of the most liberal senators, he was forced to accept incremental gains pursued by Democratic colleagues while opportunities to work with Republicans were extremely rare. His CQ Roll Call party unity score, a measure of how often he sided with Democratic senators on votes that split the parties, has never dipped below 96 percent.
“Inside he’s been pragmatic at times when it’s been mostly necessary or important,” says Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Sanders, for instance, backed the major legislation of President Barack Obama’s presidency, from the 2010 health care law to the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul, even though he thought they would not do enough to expand access to health care or rein in the big banks.
He has not disrupted Democratic leaders in the Capitol the way tea party Republicans and, more recently, Freedom Caucus members have challenged their own party chiefs.
Still, Greg Guma, a Vermont journalist and Sanders biographer, argues that Sanders has credibility with populist voters because his “rhetoric has always been righteous, radical and unequivocal.”
And Guma argues that Sanders has picked his spots on legislation, racking up small wins with amendments boosting data collection on cancer cases and funding for community health centers, and combating child labor abroad.
Guma also points out instances in which Sanders has worked with Republicans such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to boost oversight of the Federal Reserve and to rein in defense spending.
Those examples, though, are rare, according to the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, the creators of a bipartisan index that evaluates how often representatives and senators co-sponsor legislation by colleagues from across the aisle, or draw bipartisan co-sponsorship for their bills. Sanders’ lifetime score is lower than all but one other senator who served at least a full term since 1993, former South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint.