Bernie Sanders should stop being polite: Why he must get in 2016 candidates' faces!

Bernie Sanders won't be president, but he can keep the 2016 candidates honest if he runs to the left and runs hard

Published September 16, 2014 4:00PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders                       (AP/Cliff Owen)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Cliff Owen)

Last weekend, as Hillary Clinton was pretending to cook steak and Martin O’Malley was pretending to be at war with Great Britain, Bernie Sanders delivered a speech at a university in Dubuque, Iowa, during which he called for a “political revolution.” The “revolution” that Sanders, Vermont’s very liberal independent senator, wants is less the bullets-and-bayonets kind than a call to undermine the current system of campaigns and elections that prioritizes fundraising and the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class. “Politics is terribly important,” he said, according to CNN, “and what happens in Washington and state capitals is also enormously important.”

Sanders was in Iowa for the same reason that any politician who’s not from Iowa goes to Iowa: He’s thinking about running for president. He’d have a vanishingly small chance at victory. If he does run, he’ll struggle to raise the amount of money needed to run against fundraising pros like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and likely wouldn’t make it far past the Iowa caucuses, if he were to make it there in the first place. But that’s no reason not to give it a shot; there’s actually a worthwhile upside to a Sanders candidacy. If he does it right.

As part of his “I’m thinking about it tour,” Sanders stopped by "Meet the Press" last weekend to lay down some reasons for jumping into the race. There is “profound anger at both political parties” he said, and his plan would be to use his independent pedigree to tap into that anger (he hasn’t decided on whether he’d run as a Democrat or an Independent). Chuck Todd asked him the obvious question: Does his potential candidacy mean that he doesn’t think Hillary Clinton, with all her ties to the financial world, can address income inequality and Wall Street corruption and other issues he prioritizes?

Sanders punted. “I don’t know that Hillary Clinton is running,” he said. “I don’t know what she is running on.”

That struck a discordant note. I understand that he and Clinton have a relationship and I understand that he wants to carve out a platform that isn’t defined as being “anti-Hillary.” Maybe he’s waiting for his campaign to actually begin before he starts throwing elbows. But he talked about channeling the anger voters feel toward both parties, and given the chance to critique the presumed all-but-certain 2016 Democratic nominee on the issues he plans to run on, Sanders declined.

That’s noteworthy because Sanders has been more critical of Clinton in the past, even in the context of 2016. For all the attention Elizabeth Warren has received as a potential candidate despite no overt indication that she’s running, Sanders 2016 has been flying under the radar for months now, even as he’s talked openly about whether he might run. Sanders sat down for an interview with the Nation back in March and talked about what his potential candidacy would look like. Hillary’s name came up, as one would expect, and Sanders let it rip.

“Look, I am not here to be attacking Hillary Clinton,” he said, but …

But I think, sad to say, that the Clinton type of politics is not the politics certainly that I’m talking about. … So the same old same old [Clinton administration Secretary of the Treasury] Robert Rubin type of economics, or centrist politics, or continued dependence on big money, or unfettered free-trade, that is not what this country needs ideologically. That is not the type of policy that we need. And it is certainly not going to be the politics that galvanizes the tens of millions of people today who are thoroughly alienated and disgusted with the status quo. People are hurting, and it is important for leadership now to explain to them why they are hurting and how we can grow the middle class and reverse the economic decline of so many people. And I don’t think that is the politics of Senator Clinton or the Democratic establishment.

He may be a long-shot candidate, but that doesn’t mean Sanders doesn’t have a constituency. Income inequality has been one of the major Democratic issues in 2014, and that trend will likely persist into 2016. Its potency is such that Bill Clinton – whose economic legacy has long been the stuff of Democratic legend – has had to defend himself from progressives who argue that he didn’t do enough to close the gap between the rich and the poor. Hillary Clinton is also taking up the mantle of economic populism.

In that same interview with the Nation, Sanders talked about the “unconventional campaign” he’d have to run to bring together “trade unionists and working families, our minority communities, environmentalists, young people, the women’s community, the gay community, seniors, veterans, the people who in fact are the vast majority of the American population.” If he’s right that there's a coalition that can be motivated by focusing on income inequality, then Sanders can play a significant role in engaging those voters and pulling Hillary and other candidates away from the bland centrism he denounces. It’s tough to do that by playing nice.

The way Barack Obama upset Clinton in 2008 was to hammer away at the one big point of contrast between them: the Iraq war. I’m not saying Sanders can pull off a similar upset by flogging away at the wealth gap, but if he wants to keep the other candidates honest then contrasts have to be drawn. Sanders’ events in Iowa this past weekend were fairly well attended, but Hillary exerts so strong a gravitational pull that even people who were receptive to Sanders’ message had Clinton on their minds. “We admire what Bernie’s doing,” one Iowan told Time, “but she’s an accomplisher. She gets things done. And Hillary needs to get done.”

Sanders says that if he does run, he won't do it merely to force the other candidates to the left. “If I run, I would like to win,” he told MSNBC last week. But even if that isn’t what he wants to accomplish, it’s nonetheless an important role he can play, assuming he’s ready and willing to run hard and get right in their faces about it.

By Simon Maloy

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