I'm going out on a limb here, but Bernie Sanders is not going to be our next president. Still, the independent socialist senator from Vermont is sounding more and more like a man who intends to defy the doubters and run. And he could play an important role in the campaign.
Sanders hasn't formally announced his candidacy; he hasn't even changed his party registration. (If he runs, it will be in the Democratic primaries.) But he's doing everything an aspiring candidate needs to do. He's traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire. He's signed up (provisionally) a high-powered campaign manager, Tad Devine, who worked on the presidential campaigns of John F. Kerry and Al Gore. He's buttonholing reporters with even more zeal than usual. And this week, he even submitted to the gentle ridicule of faux conservative Stephen Colbert to win seven minutes of national television time.
“A self-described socialist!” Colbert faux-sneered. “Do you frighten people when you walk around the Capitol? Are they afraid you're going to take their tractor and give it to the whole village?”
“Hopefully we frighten the billionaire class,” Sanders replied as a youthful studio audience cheered.
Get ready to hear Sanders repeat that phrase, “the billionaire class,” a lot. It's the core of his message, the theme that makes him passionate: his conviction that the wealthy have hijacked not only the economy, but also the political system.
There may not have been a major-party presidential candidate with so blunt a populist message on the economy since Franklin D. Roosevelt ran against “economic royalists” in 1936.
“The biggest issue in the country is that we don't discuss the biggest issue in the country,” Sanders told me in his Senate office last week.
“How does it happen that today the economists tell us that 95% of all new income created in America goes to the top 1%? How does it happen that we have by far the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth, where one family, the Walton family of Wal-Mart, owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of the American people? How does that happen, and what do we do about it?”
Sanders' answers on what to do come from a crisp checklist: Higher taxes on the wealthy, a much higher minimum wage, $1 trillion of new spending on roads and public transportation and European-style national health insurance (which he tries to make less foreign by calling it “Medicare for all”).
He's asking the right questions. The stagnation of middle class incomes in the midst of an economic recovery has become the central challenge for both political parties. Exit polls in this month's midterm elections found that 63% of all voters believe the U.S. economic system isn't fair to most Americans, but “favors the wealthy.”
But does Sanders really think his untrammeled populism can win him the nomination, much less a general election?
“I'm running to win,” he insists. “It won't be just an educational campaign.”
When pressed, however, he acknowledges that he thinks even a losing campaign would be a good thing because of its potential to bring more attention to his ideas, widen the national debate and put pressure on Hillary Rodham Clinton or any other eventual Democratic nominee.
Win or lose, Sanders will fill a familiar role if he decides to run. Democratic presidential primaries almost always include at least one populist or quasi-populist candidate on the left. In 2008, it was John Edwards. In 2004, it was Howard Dean. In 1992, it was California's own Jerry Brown. And none of them won the nomination.
This year, there could be three candidates running to the left of Clinton. In addition to Sanders, there might be Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (who says he's running, but hasn't succeeded in defining much of a theme yet) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who spent most of the summer saying she wouldn't run, but recently modified that to “I don't think so.”
Meanwhile, former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has been talking about running as a moderate to Clinton's right.
Challenges like these would be a good thing for Clinton.
For one thing, they would give voters a reason to tune in to Democratic primary debates; otherwise, the brawling Republican field would get hours of television time all to itself.
For another, if she has challengers on both the left and right, Clinton could conveniently cast herself as the woman in the middle, the champion of her party's broad center.
And finally, it would be good for Clinton to work through her campaign style in more friendly waters. The last thing she wants is to sail through the primaries untested and have to develop her battle skills in actual combat with her Republican opponent. “She needs to get out of the cocoon of inevitability,” former Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod said last week.
If Clinton wins the nomination, she's unlikely to thank her Democratic opponents for trying to stop her from breaking the glass ceiling — but she should.