By Amie Parnes - 04-17-17 06:00 AM EDT
Democrats previously reticent to welcoming Sen. Bernie Sanders into their fold are coming around.
More than a dozen Democrats interviewed by The Hill say the Vermont Independent has become a powerful and welcome voice for a party struggling to find its identity after a devastating defeat in 2016.
While misgivings remain about giving too much leadership to a politician who technically isn't a Democrat, a clear warming trend is on the rise.
"It continues to drive me a bit nuts that he continues to register as an Independent, but the bottom line is that he is a good Democrat," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who supported Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary and openly worried then about Sanders's allegiances to the party.
During the primary, some Democrats worried that Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, was pushing the party too far to the left.
Others mocked him for being a one-issue candidate who championed what they called "unrealistic" proposals like free college tuition.
And he angered some Clinton allies who felt he stayed in the race too long and cut into her message and campaign coffers.
At least some Clinton supporters think Sanders deserves a part of the blame for Clinton's loss to Donald Trump in the general election.
And in recent weeks, former President Bill Clinton told new Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez that he didn't want the Democratic Party "to be simply the party of Bernie," according to a source familiar with that conversation.
An aide to Clinton refuted the characterization, saying the former president has always said the strength of Democratic Party is its inclusiveness. An aide for the DNC didn't respond to a request for comment.
Whatever bitter feelings exist, many other Democrats say Sanders is key to rebuilding the party.
"If you are concerned with labels, you might bristle at the notion of a registered Independent jockeying for control over the direction of the Democratic Party - and there were certainly some in the party apparatus that expressed precisely this sentiment during the 2016 campaign cycle," said Lynda Tran, a Democratic strategist.
"But if you're focused on policy ideas over party labels you might welcome the inclusion of his voice, and frankly other voices too, at a time when the Democratic Party is under intense attack and working on the path forward."
"At the end of the day, Bernie Sanders may be a registered Independent, but he has always caucused with Democrats and there is no question he continues to enjoy strong support among many members of the Democratic Party," Tran added.
The DNC has sought to harness energy from Sanders and unite the party after last year's divisions.
The ill feelings also came from leaked emails that revealed DNC staffers had sought to tilt the scales during the primary against Sanders and in Clinton's favor. Those revelations angered Sanders's supporters, who have continued to press for changes to the DNC.
Sanders backed Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in this year's DNC chairmanship contest, but he's shown a willingness to work with Perez going forward.
The two men will hit the road in April for a unity tour dubbed "Come Together and Fight Back." They will appear at rallies in seven states over six days.
Even those who staunchly supported Sanders in the presidential race acknowledge the awkwardness of Sanders's decision to remain an Independent after the primary.
"I do think it's strange. I was rather surprised that he went back to being an Independent but I don't think it matters," said Bill Press, an early supporter of Sanders who served as a surrogate for the candidate during the primary. "People like his ideas. Bernie is Bernie. Whether he has an I or a D after his name ... nobody cares."
Press, who writes a regular column for The Hill, said Sanders received support from a wide swath of Democrats and plans to use his newfound celebrity to push causes vital to Democrats. He'll also be a force in helping to elect Democrats in Congress as well as in gubernatorial and state legislature elections.
"I talk to a lot of people who now believe that Democrats nominated the wrong candidate, and they can't say for sure that Bernie would have won, but they know Bernie was more in tune with the wavelength of the American people [than Clinton]," he said. "He was an agent of change. Clinton was not."
Other Democrats say that while Sanders will be helpful in rebuilding the party, they can't just rely on him going forward.
One Democratic consultant who supported Clinton joked that it was the "Bernie Band-Aid tour: We'll slap him over our problems but fundamentally change nothing."
Still, there are still some Democrats, particularly those who supported Clinton, who find Sanders's role offensive.
"You come out of the gate and this is who you're dragging around with you," said one former DNC official. "A majority of people supported Hillary Clinton in the primary and making Bernie one of the main figures of the Democratic Party isn't going to do a damn bit of good."
"If he wants to make changes to our party, he should join it," the official said.