Why Bernie Sanders Is a Welcome Addition to the 2016 Democratic Primary Race

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to the media about his agenda in running for president, Thursday, April 30, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Corbis

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has finally announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, making him Hillary Clinton’s first declared challenger. With her campaign already beset with scandal over sketchy donations to the Clinton Foundation, and Elizabeth Warren’s perpetual resistance to running, many liberals see the 73-year-old Sanders as a much-needed addition to the race. While the self-labeled Democratic Socialist poses no nomination threat to Clinton, he may be able to act as a further-left counterbalance to Hillary’s more moderate impulses, particularly in the debates. Though he probably won’t run on his folk-singing voice, one subject Bernie will definitely highlight will be the surging dominance of big money in American politics, an easy contrast with Clinton’s robust support from Wall Street. He’s also a proponent of single-payer health care, spending a trillion dollars on infrastructure, reining in the NSA, and, of course, raising taxes on the rich. In addition, like Obama in 2007, he’ll get to highlight his opposition to the Iraq War (and other foreign interventions) with Hillary’s more hawkish record. But excitable liberals take note: He’s not going to win. Seriously. 538’s Harry Enten explains:

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Polls show Sanders doesn’t match up well against Clinton. He trails her by nearly 57 percentage points nationally, 54 percentage points in Iowa and 40 percentage points in New Hampshire. More than that, there seems to be very little desire on the left for a challenger to Clinton. She regularly earns 60 percent support among self-described “liberal” and “very liberal” voters, according to national polls. And Sanders’s colleagues in the Senate with the most liberal voting records— those who would be key to starting a mutiny against Clinton — have already endorsed her. Sanders is also in a poor position to capitalize on the growing minority vote in Democratic primaries. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s an old white guy from Vermont (which is 94 percent white). Remember, Barack Obama was able to win in 2008 because he was able to unite very liberal white voters with black voters who had traditionally backed establishment candidates, such as Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000, in the face of “fresh” challengers.

Whether Bernie has a chance or not, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi is thrilled, insisting that if the press and voters pay attention, Sanders won’t end up “a mere-footnote to the inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton”:

Sanders genuinely, sincerely, does not care about optics. He is the rarest of Washington animals, a completely honest person. If he’s motivated by anything other than a desire to use his influence to protect people who can’t protect themselves, I’ve never seen it. Bernie Sanders is the kind of person who goes to bed at night thinking about how to increase the heating-oil aid programfor the poor. […] [W]e’re conditioned to believe that the candidate who has the early assent of a handful of executives on Wall Street and in Hollywood and Silicon Valley is the “serious” politician, while the one who is merely the favorite of large numbers of human beings is an irritating novelty act whose only possible goal could be to cut into the numbers of the real players. Sanders offers an implicit challenge to the current system of national electoral politics.

But how worried should Hillary really be? Bernie abhors negative ads, so those won’t be coming, but that doesn’t mean she won’t feel the pressure. Michael Kazin, co-editor of the left-wing rag Dissent, comments:

Clinton has begun to talk, very carefully, about seeking solutions to four decades of economic inequality. The Republicans who aspire to be president mostly blame the problem on broken families and lousy public schools. But Sanders is perpetually on the attack, armed with an unvarnished class-conscious message that, until the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, had long been absent from the public square. […] As long as she runs far ahead in the polls, Clinton can avoid responding to such rhetoric. But as the unrequited longing for Sen. Elizabeth Warren demonstrates, many liberal activists thrill to tough, left-wing populist talk and endorse most of the policies Sanders favors. Just as no Republican can win the White House without the enthusiastic support of the Tea Party and the evangelical right, it will be difficult for a Democrat to triumph without the kind of people who may not know much about Sanders but will like much of what he says. They may pressure Clinton to echo it, too.

Hot Air’s Noah Rothman agrees, adding that Bernie has already compared the Clinton Foundation to the Koch Brothers charities:

[T]he punches [Sanders] is throwing at Clinton aren’t feints. He intends to land some blows. […] It’s that kind of commitment to ideology that will prove frustrating for Clinton who, even her supporters would admit, holds few convictions other than the tenacious embrace of that which is popular in the moment. It was Sanders’ authenticity that led National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooketo dub Vermont’s senator the “anti-Hillary.”

And that is definitely clear from their donor lists as well, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews points out:

The differences could hardly be more striking. Out of Clinton’s top 20 organizational donors, only two (EMILY’s List and the University of California) aren’t corporate. There are seven mega-banks, five corporate law/lobbying firms, and three big entertainment companies. Now, to be fair to Clinton, the vast majority of these donations came from individuals rather than corporate PACs, and as a senator from New York it’s understandable that finance and media interests (not to mention New York ceramics giant Corning) would give to her heavily. But it’s still a very corporate-heavy list. By contrast, 19 of Sanders’s top 20 donors are unions. The one non-labor group on the list is the American Association for Justice, an interest group for plaintiff’s attorneys, perhaps the most reliable non-union Democratic constituency. […] This is precisely the contrast Sanders wants to set up: Clinton’s donor list reads bank, bank, bank, and his reads union, union, union. That won’t be enough to win, not least because Democratic primary voters aren’t actually more liberal than Clinton. But the threat of being tarred as a tool of finance could be enough to push Clinton in a more populist direction, which is what victory for Sanders would really look like.

Then again, the campaign might not go as well as Bernie or his supporters hope. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein throws some caution:

Recall that Ron Paul, in his two presidential runs as a Republican, failed to change core party positions on any of his central issues, even though some Republican politicians were happy to poach some of his successful applause lines and hint that they supported policies to go with them (such as attacks on the Federal Reserve). What appears to work for Sanders could be emulated by other Democrats in other campaigns next year and in the future. On the other hand, if he winds up failing to crack 5 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats may conclude that Sanders-style liberalism is a loser.