WASHINGTON –- Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, self-described “democratic socialist,” claims he hasn’t decided whether to run for president, let alone whether to seek the Democratic nomination or try a third-party bid.
But in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, Sanders sounded like he was in for 2016, and that his preferred route is the Democratic race, presumably against Hillary Clinton.
He spoke after returning from a trip to Iowa and before heading back to New Hampshire –- the two most crucial early states in the traditional party nominating process. “I wanted to see what kind of response I get,” he said. So far, he said, it's been very good.
Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, said he is thinking of calling himself an “independent Democrat” for purposes of a presidential campaign.
“That would mean running in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, but acknowledging that I am an independent, and have won every election I have run as an independent.”
He likened his situation -– and Clinton’s –- to the one in the 7th Congressional District of Virginia, where voters in the Republican primary shockingly ousted the incumbent House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in favor of a libertarian college professor.
Sanders slipped out the conditional tense as he talked about the comparison.
“Everyone was shocked by Eric Cantor,” said Sanders. “My guess -– my experience –- is that when you go out and you talk to working people, there’s a lot more dissatisfaction with the status quo and status quo politics than you think.
“And if that if my conclusion is true, we’ll do better than I think people think.
“In terms of Hillary, I respect her. I’ve known her. I like her. So 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.”
I asked Sanders if he saw Hillary a symbol of an establishment gone awry.
“No question in my mind that if there was a national Democratic primary today, Hillary would win it, and win it handsomely," he said. "She would win it because she is widely respected, she is popular.”
But that is “today,” before a campaign begins in earnest, and amid a crisis.
“What people are dissatisfied with is not Hillary Clinton,” Sanders replied. “People are dissatisfied with the fact that 95 percent of all new incomes go to the top 1 percent. That’s what people are dissatisfied with. And people are dissatisfied that we have billionaires pay a lower tax rate than working families. And those are the issues.
“I think what we need is a new politics -- a different type of politics than Hillary’s," he said. "A politics that is much more grassroots-oriented, much more having to do with strong coalition-building and grassroots activism than I think Hillary has demonstrated over the years, or supported.”
At first glance, a Sanders campaign of any kind would seem to be an improbable venture. He is 72, with wisps of white hair and the inward gaze of the college professor he once was. Given his preference, he would like to pattern the U.S. after cradle-to-grave Scandinavian socialism. Vermont, home to Ben & Jerry and three electoral votes, is hardly a pivotal launching pad for national office.
But these are unusual times, and Sanders is a tougher, cannier and more practical politician than outsiders might realize.
Born in Brooklyn and educated at the University of Chicago, Sanders moved to Vermont and did everything from carpentry to filmmaking before he entered politics in the early-'70s as an anti-war activist and protest candidate.
But he later became a durable winner of House and Senate races, including in 2012 -– which he won with 71 percent of the vote.
He is perfectly willing to cut deals with Senate Democrats, including his fellow native Brooklynite Chuck Schumer of New York. Sanders chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, working with GOP Sen. John McCain on an overhaul of the beleaguered Veterans Affairs health care system.
While he nods in the direction of an independent bid (“I think there’s probably more dissatisfaction with the two-party system than we have seen in our lifetime”), Practical Bernie seems drawn to the more traditional route.
“How do you run a 50-state strategy if there are states where it’s virtually impossible to get on [the ballot]? And in which you have to have to use huge amounts of resources to get on the damned ballot?
“You want to talk about issues; you want to be out talking to people, not spending half your life trying to get on the ballot.
“The other advantage of running within the Democratic Party –- perhaps as an independent Democrat –- is that you are going to get more media attention, you will be in the debates rather than being on the outside,” Sanders said.
And there is the downside risk that running as an independent in the fall of 2016 could cost the Democrats the White House -– as Sanders has said Ralph Nader’s candidacy did in 2000.
Sanders seems destined instead to spend a lot more time in, say, New Hampshire, next door to his own Vermont.
Another piece of evidence that Sanders is in it for real: He is doing an event at a bookstore in New Hampshire even though, unlike many long-shot candidates, he isn’t hawking a book.
Or unlike a frontrunner who has raked in millions for her new book.
“I’m announcing a book tour without a book,” he said. “How’s that?”