What Makes Bernie Run?

05/07/2015 12:21 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

On April 29th, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced he'll compete with Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Although anything can happen between now and the late July 2016 Democratic convention, it appears that Sanders' intent is not to win the nomination but to influence Clinton on critical domestic policy issues - to move Hillary to the left.

74-year-old Sanders has a solid liberal pedigree. In 1963 he was active in the civil rights movement as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1971 he entered politics. In 1981 he was elected Mayor of Burlington and in 1991 became Vermont's at-large representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2007 Sanders moved to the U.S. Senate where he has been a prominent member of the progressive caucus.

Bernie Sanders is a self-proclaimed "Democratic Socialist," officially an independent member of the Senate, although he caucuses with the Democrats. While he's well known on the left, Sanders has limited national name recognition. A recent Huffington Post poll found that he had 7.1 percent support among Democrats, compared with Hillary Clinton's 61 percent support.

When asked about his candidacy, Sanders explained, "I'm not running to attack Hillary Clinton. I'm running to talk about the issues that impact the working class of this country and the middle class." Two issues will illuminate the elemental differences between Clinton and Sanders: taxes and Wall Street reform.

Sanders has a strong liberal position on taxes:

"At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, we need a progressive tax system in this country which is based on ability to pay. It is not acceptable that major profitable corporations have paid nothing in federal income taxes, and that corporate CEOs in this country often enjoy an effective tax rate which is lower than their secretaries."

In her announcement video Hillary Clinton said: "Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times. But the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top... Everyday Americans need a champion and I want to be that champion." While Clinton recognizes that income inequality is limiting the US economy, she has been short on specific remedies. (Although, in an Iowa campaign speech she noted, "Hedge-fund managers pay lower taxes than do most middle-class Americans.") In the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, candidate Clinton agreed with Barack Obama that taxes rates for those making more than $250,000 a year should revert to the 1990s rates.

Bernie Sanders also has a liberal position on Wall Street reform:

"Today, six huge Wall Street financial institutions have assets equivalent to 61 percent of our gross domestic product - over $9.8 trillion. These institutions underwrite more than half the mortgages in this country and more than two-thirds of the credit cards. The greed, recklessness and illegal behavior of major Wall Street firms plunged this country into the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. They are too powerful to be reformed. They must be broken up."

Wall Street reform is a problem issue for Clinton. It's unlikely that she will support breaking up the big banks. A recent CNN report observed that Hillary and Bill Clinton have a longstanding positive relationship with Wall Street:

"As a New York senator for almost a decade, she represented Wall Street and courted the industry aggressively during her last presidential campaign. And there is a certain degree of nostalgia within the industry for her husband's two-term presidency, marked by the 1990s bull market and broad financial deregulation, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banking from riskier investing activities."

Nonetheless, in January, Clinton defended the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act: "Attacking financial reform is risky and wrong. Better for Congress to focus on jobs and wages for middle class families."

There are two other issues that could differentiate Sanders and Clinton. One is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Sanders is against it: "The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multi-national corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy."

The Hill observed: "As secretary of State, [Clinton] was a chief advocate as talks commenced surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership." Recently Clinton has tempered her support for TPP. In New Hampshire she cautioned: "Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security."

Another issue is the Keystone XL pipeline. Bernie Sanders is opposed to the Pipeline. While Secretary of State Clinton said she was "inclined" to sign off on the project." Most recently she has declined to take a position: "You won't get me to talk about Keystone because I have steadily made clear that I'm not going to express an opinion. It is in our process and that's where it belongs."

Bernie Sanders is doing Democrats a favor by running against Hillary Clinton. His candidacy may not move her to the left, but it will draw her out and clarify her positions on key issues.