Bernie Sanders meme encapsulates paradox of hero for young Americans

America Letter: Senator’s influence will grow as the new chair of Senate budget committee

As the bustle of the Biden inauguration has receded and the new president has got to work, one memory of the event shows no sign of fading. Bernie Sanders became the internet sensation of the day.

A photograph of the Vermont senator, sitting cross-legged on a folding chair, went viral. Dressed in a khaki coat and woollen mittens, his famous scowl was discernible behind his blue face mask.

Within minutes the image had whizzed across the world. The Bernie meme popped up in all kinds of places – sitting on a park bench with Forrest Gump, looming in the hotel corridor in The Shining, perched on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The mittens – a casual but practical caution against the January cold – became an instant fashion hit, rivalling the glamorous range of high-end winter coats on show by the presidential party. It emerged that Jen Ellis, a second-grade teacher from Sanders's home state of Vermont, had made the mittens as a gift for the senator in 2016.

“They are made from repurposed wool sweaters and lined with fleece (made from recycled plastic bottles),” she wrote on Twitter, referring to materials that no doubt met the approval of one of Washington’s most left-wing and climate-conscious senators.

Sanders’s moment of fame encapsulates the paradox of a man who has become a hero among many young Americans since his presidential run in 2016. I experienced the Bernie adoration first hand a year ago, when I was swamped by thousands of screaming fans, most under 30, at his party in Des Moines after the Iowa caucus.

‘Ever heard of him?’

The room was crammed with sweaty, exhilarated Bernie bros chanting "Bernie, Bernie" as their candidate outperformed rivals including Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren – a success he was to replicate right up to Super Tuesday and beyond in many states, before he finally threw his weight behind Biden.

Now, the curmudgeonly senator is about to become more influential in a different way. With Democrats controlling the Senate, Bernie Sanders is the new chair of its budget committee.

For Republicans, it's a nightmare come true. "If we lose the Senate, do you know who becomes chair of the Senate budget committee?," former House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan warned his colleagues before the 2016 elections. "A guy named Bernie Sanders. You ever heard of him?"

After Democrats won the two Senate run-off seats in Georgia, delivering them control of the chamber, former UN ambassador and rumoured 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley tweeted: "Time to face the harsh reality, socialist Bernie Sanders will become the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. He has vowed to use his position to enact his progressive agenda on healthcare, climate, infrastructure spending, and cutting defense spending."

"Yes, he has," was the response of Jane Sanders, the senator's wife and close political confidante, on Twitter.

Sanders, who is technically an independent senator but votes with Democrats in the Senate, has been the ranking member of the committee since 2015. While the committee’s primary function is to oversee budget plans and enforce rules around spending and revenue, its chair also has the power to approve legislation through the reconciliation process. This procedural tool allows legislation to be passed with a simple majority, rather than the usual two-thirds margin needed.

Sanders has made no secret of his intention to use the process to advance his agenda.

“In the past, Republicans used budget reconciliation to pass massive tax breaks for the rich and large corporations with a simple majority vote,” he said. “As the incoming chairman of the budget committee, I will fight to use the same process to boldly address the needs of working families.”

Better relationship

Nonetheless, Democrats have just 50 seats in the 100-seat chamber, which together with a tie-breaking vote from vice-president Kamala Harris will deliver them a simple majority. This means that Sanders will have to keep all Democrats – including more centrist senators from Republican-leaning states like Joe Manchin of West Virginia – in line.

Sanders has said he is willing to work with all sections of the party, including the president. He said he has a "much better relationship" with the new occupant of the White House than he did with Hillary Clinton, whom he challenged for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Biden's $1.9 trillion (€1.5 trillion) coronavirus relief package, which includes a proposal to send $1,400 (€1,150) stimulus checks to Americans, is first on the agenda, a policy priority that Sanders has embraced with gusto, even as Republicans have baulked at the price tag.

For Sanders, his new-found power will be an opportunity for a self-styled political outsider to effect real change in Washington.