Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is running for president. And despite the fact that he is the longest-serving independent in Congress, he says that “after a year of travel, discussion and dialogue, I have decided to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.”
Sanders, who formally announced his candidacy in a series of statements this week, is not actually running against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who announced her candidacy earlier in April. Rather, both Sanders and Clinton are seeking the nomination of the party. They may be joined by others: former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island senator (and governor) Lincoln Chaffee. Draft initiatives are still trying to entice Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden into the competition.
By most measures, Clinton is a first among equals. She has dramatically higher name-recognition than Sanders or any of the other prospects. She is way ahead in the polls. And most commentators are convinced that she is not merely a candidate for the nomination but the Democratic nominee in waiting.
Perhaps they are right, although Sanders counsels, “People should not underestimate me. I’ve run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates and, you know, I think the message that has resonated in Vermont is a message that can resonate all over this country.”
Even if Clinton is “inevitable,” however, she needs to debate Sanders and the other contenders. Clinton debated her opponent in her 2000 Senate race; she participated in a number of debates during her 2008 presidential run; and her campaign has indicated that she is open to debating this year.
That’s good, not just because there is much to debate but because debates are good for all candidates—including front-runners. There is plenty of history to remind us that front-runners who win their nominations in honest competition tend to be better prepared for the fall fight than those who avoid it.
No matter who else gets into the race, a Clinton-Sanders debate would be a lively, issue-focused exchange between two candidates who know and respect each other but are very different. Not long after Sanders traveled to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Clinton was a youthful campaigner for Barry Goldwater—the first step on an political evolution that would four years later see her backing Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent primary challenge to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. While Clinton’s first elective post was a US Senate seat, Sanders has been a mayor, a statewide candidate, a congressman, and a senator. The New York Times reports that Clinton’s “finance team and the outside groups supporting her candidacy have started collecting checks in what is expected to be a $2.5 billion effort, dwarfing the vast majority of her would-be rivals in both parties.” Sanders rips “plutocrats” and “the billionaire class” that funds campaigns.