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04/29/2015 07:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bernie Sanders Jumps In

We've had a President Jimmy and a President Ronnie, so why not a President Bernie?

That was my first thought on hearing the news that Senator Bernard ("Bernie") Sanders is going to formally announce his candidacy for president tomorrow. Often, first thoughts are not the most profound, as I seem to have proved here. But upon reflection, a deeper meaning can be teased out of my sophomoric response: why not a President Bernie? I'm pretty sure there will be many in the media who laugh Sanders off as some sort of "not serious" candidate, and attempt to pigeonhole Sanders into the role of court jester to Hillary Clinton: there to amusingly point out foibles, but in a way that cannot be taken seriously. This is a mistake. Bernie Sanders is a serious candidate, no matter what his chances at the ballot box may ultimately be. He cares deeply about the issue of inequality, and he is not afraid to say exactly what he thinks. You can question how viable a candidate Sanders will be, but no matter what the answer to that turns out to be, Sanders will be a serious candidate. The issues he will raise on the campaign trail deserve serious discussion and consideration, from not only Hillary Clinton but also from the media themselves.

Bernie Sanders will be unique among presidential candidates because the first step he'll have to take is to become a Democrat. Up until now, Bernie has called himself a Democratic Socialist (although he does caucus reliably with the Democrats in Congress). This raises a big question, one that he will hopefully answer tomorrow. Will Sanders, if he loses the Democratic nomination, run as an independent in the general election? This could set up a Ralph Nader problem for Hillary, but it doesn't seem likely that Sanders would actually go that far. But the question is a valid one, which is why it'll be interesting to see if he addresses the issue in tomorrow's announcement (or soon thereafter).

I realize it's pretty pessimistic to begin analyzing a campaign by assuming defeat in the primaries, so let's instead consider a path to victory for Bernie Sanders. Will he be able to raise enough money? Well, he sure won't be able to match Clinton's totals, at least at first. But will that matter? There is already a groundswell in the Democratic Party for a more Progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton, but up until now it has been focused on a woman who keeps swearing -- over and over -- that she is just not going to run. Sooner or later those advocating for an Elizabeth Warren candidacy are going to have to start believing the words Warren is saying, one assumes. When they do, the most attractive candidate for them to focus on is going to be none other than Bernie Sanders. Ideologically, at least on the major Progressive issues of the day, Sanders and Warren are two peas in a pod. There isn't a lot of daylight between them on, for instance, their attitudes towards Wall Street and Main Street. So Sanders will be a good fit for the Warren enthusiasts.

It remains to be seen how much enthusiasm Sanders could raise among Democratic Party primary voters as a whole, though. The policies he advocates are actually very popular -- something Progressives love to point out -- even if they do meet with a lot of sneering contempt by all the "serious people" inside the Beltway. If a Bernie Sanders candidacy catches a little fire with the public, however, the mainstream media might actually have to start discussing his issues. The more media coverage he gets, the more his ideas get heard. Which could spark a wave of support for Sanders among Democrats.

The conventional wisdom says that Sanders will be nothing more than a goad to Hillary Clinton. He'll be pulling her to the left, but she'll easily co-opt his issues (in some milder, more-centrist way) and bury him with the millions in her campaign chest. This could turn out to be true. But money doesn't always win in politics. Ask Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman, they'll tell you. If Bernie Sanders has a truly winning message, it just might trump all the money spent against him.

Obviously, if Sanders does have a path to victory, it would certainly help if Clinton stumbles at some point along the way. This stumble could take many forms -- a scandal that the public actually considers scandalous, a health issue, or perhaps getting caught saying something insensitive along the campaign trail -- but any such bump in the road for Clinton would help Sanders (and any other Democrats who run). Both Clintons are known for political stumbles, but they're also known for overcoming them and quickly putting them in the rearview mirror. So even a Clinton misstep might not be enough for Sanders to break into the frontrunner position.

Sanders has one other liability when compared to Clinton. He's an old white guy. That's not very demographically exciting. He wouldn't be the first old white guy to be president, to put this another way. The media has become jaded over Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to (as she put it) "break the glass ceiling," but there are millions of women out there who will be very proud and excited to cast their votes for the first woman to lead the country. Sanders is at a disadvantage, due to not being the first of his kind with a chance at the White House.

That's not an impossible obstacle to overcome, though. If Bernie Sanders does well in the first two primary contests, he'll be taken a lot more seriously. Iowa might be the tougher of the two, because it will require a lot of effort (and having a lot of money wouldn't hurt that effort). New Hampshire is right next to Vermont, where Bernie hails from, but that also doesn't automatically mean he'll be accepted by New Hampshire voters. There is a sort of friendly animosity between New Hampshire and Vermont, where anything from the other state is viewed with a healthy amount of suspicion. Still, Bernie Sanders is a lot more well-known in New Hampshire than he is elsewhere. He won't have to "introduce" himself the way he will have to in Iowa, in other words, because many New Hampshire voters already know who he is and what he stands for. In Iowa, Sanders will likely try a grassroots-style campaign, talking to as many voters in person as he possibly can. Sanders has always been comfortable talking to people in this fashion, so he could be more successful at it than might initially be imagined.

Bernie Sanders has one big thing going for him: authenticity. He's an honest guy -- he'll tell you exactly what he thinks without resorting to a focus group beforehand. There is no trust issue with Sanders -- if he gets elected, he'll do exactly what he promised he'd do (or, at the very least, he'd sincerely try to make good on his promises). Compare that to the way many Democrats view Hillary Clinton -- they're pleasantly surprised when she gives a speech that takes a liberal position (as she did this morning, in fact), but they also harbor seeds of doubt as to whether Hillary really believes what she's saying or whether she's just saying it because she thinks it's what the voters currently want to hear. There are questions about how much Democrats should trust Clinton's stances, to put it bluntly. There would be no such question with Bernie Sanders. He's exactly who he says he is, and he speaks from the heart about issues like inequality. That could play very well in places like Iowa and Nevada.

If, for the sake of argument, Sanders does somehow beat Hillary Clinton and becomes the Democratic nominee, what chance would he have against the Republican in the race? That's hard to predict, for a number of reasons. In the first place, it will matter how he beat Clinton. Did she stumble badly and take herself out of the running as a result? Or did Sanders just catch fire with the public and Clinton's ideas and message couldn't compete? How strong Sanders would be in the general election might depend on the answers to those questions. If his ideas were the reason for his primary victory, then it'll depend on how the Republican nominee stacks up against him on those issues. A more-moderate Republican might do better than an extremist, to state the obvious.

No matter who ultimately gets the Republican nomination, they'll be attempting to paint Sanders as a "lefty extremist." Look for the demonization of the word "Socialist" to be prominent in these attacks. Now, the spectre of the big, bad Socialism doesn't pack the same punch as it used to back in the days of the Cold War, but it still does have an impact with the public. People who can't explain the difference between Socialism and Communism usually don't approve of either. Sanders could overcome this built-in animosity only by clearly explaining his platform of taking the side of the little guy.

That sounds dismissive, but it isn't. Taking the side of the little guy is going to be a big issue in the 2016 campaign, no matter what happens. It's such a potent issue that the Republicans are actually trying to co-opt it. Of course, their policy positions are pretty much guaranteed to make inequality worse (especially when "give rich people big tax breaks" is so central to everything Republicans want to do), and Bernie Sanders is possibly the best candidate to point this out in no uncertain terms. Once again, Elizabeth Warren is not going to run, leaving Sanders to champion the Progressive positions. People are fed up with Washington coddling Wall Street, and Sanders (unlike all the Republicans) won't have to twist himself into a pretzel explaining what his plans are to fix this problem.

Not to be too dismissive, but the other Democrats so far mentioned as possible candidates seem like they're running to be first choice for Hillary's veep. I don't think they'll be challenging her in the way that Bernie Sanders will. Sanders is going to be an unapologetic Progressive voice in the race, and is going to freely criticize Hillary Clinton whenever she tries to advocate half-measures or use weaselly language to define her positions. No matter what you think his chances of winning the nomination (or the presidency), Bernie Sanders is going to force everyone else to focus on the little guy. Which, for me, absolutely makes him a serious candidate. President Bernie is a concept we should all take seriously.

 

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