Northampton, Massachusetts—Senator Bernie Sanders is inching closer to deciding to run for president as a Democrat in 2016.
When Sanders appeared in Northampton to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Progressive Democrats of America, and to honor the legacy of the group’s late co-founder and national director, Tim Carpenter, “Run, Bernie, Run” sentiment ran high. Carpenter’s last act was to collect 11,000 petitions urging Sanders to run as a Democrat. And nothing Sanders said discouraged the consensus.
Thus a memorial service became an organizational birth, just as Carpenter himself envisioned.
Nothing is decided until it is officially decided, of course, and pressures from the Democratic establishment are building quickly against the independent Vermont senator. Few if any Democratic elected officials are likely to endorse Sanders for fear of retribution from the formidable Hillary Clinton forces. Women’s groups, African-Americans, Latinos and Asians, Hollywood liberals and the organized labor are coalescing into a united front for Clinton too, and are sharply opposed to a potentially divisive primary fight with Sanders.
But just as 2016 will be Clinton’s moment as a longtime feminist, it could also be Sanders’ moment as the only candidate challenging what he calls the “oligarchic force” with their vast powers over the economy, campaign finance and suicidal exploitation of fossil fuels. Sanders’ warning that democracy is threatened by the oligarchs resonates profoundly with millions of Americans looking for answers and for heroes. On the economic issues, it is predictable that a majority of rank-and-file Democratic voters prefer Sanders’ message on the economic crisis to the neoliberal formulas long supported by the Clintons. Those populist issues are not the only motivators in an election, but create a pre-existing base for a credible challenger, just as the Iraq War and Democratic silence propelled Vermont Governor Howard Dean to national influence in 2004.
For the moment, Sanders is on a nationwide speaking-and-listening tour in which he delivers a long, detailed and educational stump lecture on the stranglehold of the oligarchy, adding a menu of general solutions: infrastructure spending, expansion of healthcare and education programs, repeal of the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, protecting civil liberties against a Big Brother surveillance state, and a rapid energy transition away from greenhouse gas emissions. Without detailing his foreign policy views, Sanders reminded the PDA audience of his opposition to the Patriot Act and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The Clinton forces currently dismiss the Sanders’ challenge, relying on an early monopoly of endorsements and money to project an aura of inevitability. But her advisers have reason to worry if she has to face Sanders in twenty to thirty debates where he will have a populist advantage with the voters judging them. In the Clinton style, she may hug the center with an eye on the fall general election, which could cause a dampening of ardor among the Democratic base. Assuming she wins the nomination, a lingering “Bernie factor” in states like Ohio could tip the November balance. The Karl Rove Republicans basically depend on fissures among Democratic constituencies to eke out victories for their unpopular Republican candidates.