05/12/2015 12:56 pm ET Updated May 12, 2016

Democratic Gadfly


Liberal U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is going to spar with frontrunner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the real threat that he poses is to whomever becomes the Republican nominee.

Here is why. Caucasian blue-collar Americans have been an important component of the Republican voter base for decades. That is a reality even though GOP candidates, once in office, frequently pursue policies that run counter to low- and middle-income voters' interests.

Sen. Sanders' blunt talk on fiscal inequality has the potential to cut through the cultural, regional, gender, and sometimes racial biases that have anesthetized blue-collar voters to their self-inflicted wounds. Such voters tend to dismiss criticism of their reflexive Republican loyalty when delivered by liberal Ivy League-educated "elites." But as Sanders campaigns around the country, this GOP constituency could well be more receptive to his rough-hewn, strident attacks on corporate economic exploitation of the average citizen. If they are, it could adversely impact Republicans' fate on Election Day.

Sanders puts Republicans' faux-populist appeal to shame by stressing its contradictions. At the same time that the GOP is championing enhancement of the blue-collar population's status, Sanders asserts, Republican lawmakers are opposing a higher minimum wage, pushing for reductions in education subsidies, blocking major job-creating public infrastructure programs, and striving to weaken regulations to protect public health and the environment.

"Government has got to play a very important role in making sure we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment," Sanders declares.

Even most Republicans support regulations to protect them against pollution when they are asked to judge the measures on an individual basis. Yet many low-income voters, threatened by pollution for lack of political clout, inexplicably have supported Republican candidates who perpetuate such a disadvantageous status quo. Republican leaders all too often seem to be acting at the bidding of such billionaire industrialists as the Koch brothers, who would like to abolish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (along with Social Security, Medicare, and public education in their present form).

Sanders rails against this oligarchic crowd. He lambastes Republican efforts to relax environmental regulations and enable corporations to reduce compliance costs at the expense of their customers' welfare. Pollution damages (and subsequent medical bills) increase while the costs of cleanup are shifted to the victims -- the general public.

Unlike his Republican political opponents, Sanders has a legislative record in office that matches his fiery rhetoric.

So when he fulminates on the campaign trail during the next 12 months, it won't be some smooth-talking intellectual type scolding blue-collar whites for letting themselves be shortchanged. It will be a plain-spoken, no-holds-barred guy whose actions in office have repeatedly proven he is on their side. Just maybe they will listen, and if they do, the Republican coalition will teeter toward disintegration.