Run, Bernie, run! A Sanders presidential candidacy is exactly what Dem Party needs

Why not? The Vermont socialist could play a crucial role in setting the 2016 Democratic policy platform

By Jim Newell
May 20, 2014 8:11PM (UTC)
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Bernie Sanders (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

It's unclear if Sen. Bernie Sanders is talking about running for president because a) he's seriously considering running for president or b) he's just trying to earn his issues attention from the stupid media that only cares about trivial presidential election jibber-jabber. If it's b, then he's already succeeded, as this very article and other recent press clips confirm. Well played, sir. But hopefully he's serious about joining. Of course he should run. He'd be the perfect foil to spar with Hillary Clinton, which is precisely the role he envisions. At the least, he could play a vital role in setting Clinton's policy agenda before she moves on to the general election.

Sanders, the 72-year-old self-described socialist from Vermont, got the "Dan Balz treatment" (sorry) in this weekend's Washington Post. He laid out his rationale for a challenge to Clinton from the left:


“If she does run, will she be as strong as the times require in taking on the billionaire class that has so much power? I’m not sure that she will be,” Sanders said during an interview in his Senate office. “Will she be as strong as needs be to address the crisis of climate change? I am not sure that she will be. Will she be as strong as needs be to take on the power of Wall Street? I’m not sure she will be.”

This is almost exactly spot-on as a case against Hillary Clinton from the left. (The only quibble is that Clinton will likely be quite assertive about addressing climate change, since addressing climate change is an issue on which rich liberal donors have given activists their permission.)

Sanders understands his ability to pull the center of gravity toward the left. There's even a history, there, with the Clintons. Here's a lesson Sanders learned after the defeat of "Hillarycare" in Bill Clinton's first term:

Not long after Bill Clinton's health care reform proposal went down to defeat in the Senate, Bill ran into Bernie Sanders, Congress's only avowed socialist. Bernie approached him with a grave look on his face. "Mr. President, I am so sorry. I failed you on health care."

Clinton was puzzled. Sanders had supported his reforms. "What do you mean, Bernie?" said Clinton. "You were with me every step of the way!"

"Exactly," replied Sanders. "I should have been burning you in effigy on the steps of the Capitol. Then people would have understood how moderate your plan really was."

The next time a Democratic Congress took up healthcare reform, in 2009, Sanders did better: He held out his vote until $10 billion in funding for community health centers was added to the bill. His railing against the law's lack of a public option didn't do much to show Republicans "how moderate" the plan really was -- it was always going to be abject communism to them. But he did win concrete concessions for the left.


The biggest question facing Hillary Clinton heading into 2016, aside from whether she actually wants to run, is what she would want to run on -- aside from climate change, gay rights and other issues that have near-unanimous support across the Democratic coalition, from elites to activists. You know, on the tricky issues, the issues about "money," inequality, the distribution of wealth and what have you. What Sanders could do, then, is plant a flag somewhere well out to the left and she could position herself just a touch to the right of it: still left, but "moderate" by comparison.

And who knows? Maybe Sanders would do such a fine job of setting the agenda that he'd pull off an Obama and end up defeating Clinton. That's not likely (although it's more likely than him pulling off a John Edwards and impregnating some random non-wife person). But it's a good sign that at least we have one potential Clinton challenger who's not just angling for the V.P. slot or a Cabinet appointment, and doesn't feel the need to ask Clinton's permission to run against her.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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