Bernie Sanders is increasingly iffy on running for president -- and the reason is thoroughly depressing

What the progressive senator's reticence reveals about a poisoned political process

Published March 13, 2015 2:50PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders                 (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

For the better part of a year, progressive firebrand Bernie Sanders has barnstormed the country to rail against growing economic inequality and stagnant wages, champion universal health care, advocate new investments in jobs and infrastructure, and heap some well-deserved scorn on the malefactors of great wealth. These issues have animated the Vermont senator's four decades in public life, but the self-described democratic socialist's forays into states like Iowa and New Hampshire were motivated by more than the desire for a larger platform: Sanders has also been sounding out support for a 2016 presidential run, either in the Democratic primaries or as an independent. Should he run as a Democrat, Sanders would undoubtedly face long odds against Hillary Clinton, the prohibitive favorite: He currently stands at about four percent in national polls, behind Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and well behind Clinton, who hovers around 60 percent. But with Biden making no serious moves toward a bid and Warren adamant that she's not interested, it's perfectly plausible that Sanders could gain steam as others step aside, and it's far from difficult to envision Sanders' fiery appeals to the left's deeply-held values galvanizing grassroots support.

Well-positioned as he is to emerge as Clinton's leading progressive challenger, however, Sanders appears increasingly hesitant to take the plunge, Politico reports:

Bring up presidential politics, though, and Sanders speaks softly, shrugs often and keeps his answers short. He shakes his head no when asked if he’s figured out whether to run as an independent or a Democrat. Instead of dwelling on his recent visits to early nominating states Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders instead brings up upcoming trips to California, Texas and Nevada. He also admits he hasn’t gotten far on the financial and staffing fronts.

“We have not really raised money,” he says. “You know, we have raised a little money, but nothing serious. Do we have, for example — I suspect that we do have the potential to raise a decent amount of money through modest donations on the Internet. Can I swear to you that that’s the case? I can’t.”

It would be one thing if Sanders were reconsidering the race because Clinton has displayed a newfound toughness toward her friends on Wall Street, or because he believes other candidates are giving credible voice to the economic anxieties he has sought to tap. But Sanders makes no such indications -- indeed, he seems quite unsatisfied with Clinton, telling Politico that he remains unsure where she stands on such issues as poverty, corporate malfeasance, and war. Why the reticence, then? It's simple: "We have not really raised money." Sanders adviser Tad Devine elaborates:

“He has absolutely no rapport with the people giving him money,” Devine said with a laugh after a Sanders speech Monday at the National Press Club. “As a matter of fact, he’s spending most of his time trashing them.” Sanders’ Senate campaign committee has just under $4.5 million on hand. The committee raised more than $1.1 million during the 2014 cycle, while his political action committee, Progressive Voters of America, raised just over $535,000.

That money dominates -- nay, poisons -- our political process is not exactly news. But witnessing the consequences of this broken system -- a system in which the Koch brothers can drop nearly $1 billion on an election -- continues to prove thoroughly depressing. Here we have a potential candidate who would buck the bipartisan neoliberal orthodoxy of austerity, free trade, deregulation, and privatization -- but who may nevertheless be deterred by a rotten regime that demands candidates grovel before well-heeled contributors and spend hours dialing for dollars. Indeed, Devine all but admits that because Sanders dares to challenge the concentrated power of our plutocratic class, he may not be able to assemble the resources required to mount a serious campaign.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton each aim to raise well north of a cool billion for their campaigns; Bush's financial juggernaut is already on track to collect $50 million to $100 million for the first three months of this year, and while his party's base is decidedly skeptical of him, his cash cow of a campaign may ultimately be too much for his rivals to overcome. As for Clinton, there's no doubt that much of her strength in early polls reflects goodwill among Democratic voters -- of course, 2008 attests that such sentiment can be fickle -- but is that what's really behind the recent spate of headlines that for all her flaws, Democrats have no other alternative? Hardly. Above all else, the party apparatus is loyal to Clinton because, in the unlikely event that she doesn't run, they don't see any other candidate who could build anything like her money machine, and in the near-certain case that she does enter the race, strategists don't see how any potential rival would compete against it. So why alienate a potential president by backing someone else? (I can already hear you raise the objection that the Clinton campaign was the inevitable financial powerhouse for much of the 2008 cycle, and yet that didn't stop high-profile Democrats from rallying behind Barack Obama, but I would point out that few within the Democratic establishment were willing to publicly support Obama until he showed his own skill at raking in funds.)

To be sure, money alone does not explain the rush to coronate Clinton. It's also a matter of whom the media designate as "serious" candidates -- and who, therefore, enjoys a real platform from which to set out a vision for the country. Sanders may convey a message that resonates with progressive activists, and Martin O'Malley may boast an impressive track record of liberal accomplishments from his tenure as Maryland governor, but they remain relative unknowns, polling in the low single digits, so they're sideshows at best. To the extent that most media outlets show any interest, it's in whether they can get Clinton's potential opponents to jab her. There's far less of an attention span for Sanders' ideas on how to boost wages, or O'Malley's proposal to reinstate Glass-Steagall, the banking reform law repealed by President Clinton. These candidates are not carnival barkers, but because they don't enjoy the name recognition or financial prowess of a Clinton, the mere mention of Sanders and O'Malley's names can generate Beltway snickers.

Of course, the question of who counts as "serious" cannot be separated from the question of money. What we're witnessing is a vicious circle whereby candidates struggle to raise money and therefore struggle to get their messages out and rise in the polls, and because said candidates' polling numbers are nothing to write home about, it's difficult to get donors to pay up.

The implications of such an order are nothing if not pernicious. The think Demos has extensively documented how the policy preferences of the donor class shape the positions of their political proteges. (You didn't expect the pols to be extraordinarily ungrateful, did you?) Economic inequality and political inequality, it turns out, are indelibly linked.

Call it what you will -- a plutocracy, an oligarchy, a corporatocracy -- but this state of affairs is not emblematic of a democracy.

By Luke Brinker

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