Bernie Sanders is not burning with presidential ambition. He doubts that he would consider bidding for the nation’s top job if another prominent progressive was gearing up for a 2016 run that would provide a seriously focused and seriously competitive populist alternative to politics as usual.
But if the fundamental issues that are of concern to the great mass of Americans—“the collapse of the middle class, growing wealth and income inequality, growth in poverty, global warming”—are not being discussed by the 2016 candidates, Sanders says, “Well, then maybe I have to do it.”
This calculation brings the independent senator from Vermont a step closer to presidential politics than he has ever been before. With a larger social-media following than most members of Congress, a regular presence on left-leaning television and talk radio programs—syndicated radio host Bill Press greeted the Sanders speculation with a Tuesday morning “Go, Bernie, Go!” cheer—and a new “Progressive Voters of America” political action committee, Sanders has many of the elements of an insurgent candidacy in place.
But the senator is still a long way from running.
In interviews over the past several days, Sanders has argued with increasing force that the times demand that there be a progressive contender in 2016.
“Under normal times, it’s fine, if you have a moderate Democrat running, a moderate Republican running,” the senator told his hometown paper, the Burlington Free Press. “These are not normal times. The United States right now is in the middle of a severe crisis and you have to call it what it is.”
So, says Sanders, there must be a progressive alternative to the conservative Republican politics of cruelty and cuts and the centrist Democratic politics of compromise with the conservatives.
“[The] major issues of this country that impact millions of people cannot continue to be swept under the rug,” Sanders told Politico on Monday. “And if nobody else is talking about it, well, then maybe I have to do it. But I do not believe that I am the only person that is capable of doing this.”
The independent senator has high praise for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has recently been talked up by some progressives as a prospective primary challenger to the front-runner for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unlike Clinton, Warren has a reputation for taking on Wall Street, big banks and corporate CEOs, and Sanders hails the Massachusetts senator as a “real progressive.” But Warren says she is not running.
So what happens if Warren stands down? And what if other liberal and populist presidential prospects, such as Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, fail to gain traction?
Then, says Sanders, he’d consider a run.
That sounds casual. But it isn’t. Sanders has stipulations regarding a candidacy.
Though he is a proud independent, he would not run as a November “spoiler” who might take away just enough votes to throw the presidential election to a right-wing Republican.
And he has little taste for “educational” campaigns that seek to raise issues—either on an independent line or in a Democratic primary dominated by a Clinton juggernaut—but do not seriously compete for power.
If Sanders were to run—and that remains a very big “if”—he says he would do so with a strategy for winning.
That strategy, whether the senator were to mount a presidential bid as an independent or as a Democrat, would not be built around insider ties or connections; Clinton already has much of the party establishment locked down. And it certainly would not rely on raising the most money, explains the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and get big money out of politics.
When we spoke recently about the challenges facing progressive candidates, Sanders said what most politicians will not:
“This small handful of multi-billionaires control the economics of this country. They determine whether jobs stay in the United States or whether they go to China. They determine how much we’re going to BE paying for a gallon of gas. They determine whether we’re going to transform our economic system away from fossil fuel. Economically, they clearly have an enormous amount of power. And, now, especially with Citizens United, these very same people are now investing in politics. That’s what oligarchy is. Oligarchy is when a small number of people control the economic and political life of the country—certainly including the media—and we are rapidly moving toward an oligarchic form of society.”
Sanders actually likes the prospects of taking on the oligarchs, saying: “And I think you can bring people together to say: Look, we may have our disagreements, but we don’t want billionaires deciding who the next governor is going to be, the next senator, the next president of the United States. As someone who believes in that type of grassroots organizing, I think it’s a great opportunity.”
So any presidential run by Sanders would rely on small contributions and grassroots support. But the core of the strategy would be that challenge to oligarchy, with its focus on values and ideas that have been too long dismissed by prominent presidential contenders and the media that covers them.
In effect, say Sanders, he would run only if he thought that he could fill the great void in the American political discourse, and in so doing inspire voters to reject old orthodoxies in favor of a new populist politics that would have as its core theme economic justice.
When we spoke about what is missing from American politics, Sanders told me that the president America needs would begin the discussion, as Franklin Roosevelt did, by calling out the plutocrats and their political and media minions.
Imagine, explains Sanders, if Americans had a president who said to them: “I am going to stand with you. And I am going to take these guys on. And I understand that they’re going to be throwing thirty-second ads at me every minute. They’re going to do everything they can to undermine my agenda. But I believe that if we stand together, we can defeat them.”
The senator explained the concept that would, necessarily, underpin a presidential bid:
“If you had a President who said: ‘Nobody in America is going to make less than $12 or $14 an hour,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President who said: ‘You know what, everybody in this country is going to get free primary health care within a year,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘Every kid in this country is going to go to college regardless of their income,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘I stand here today and guarantee you that we are not going to cut a nickel in Social Security; in fact we’re going to improve the Social Security program,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a president who said, ‘Global warming is the great planetary crisis of our time, I’m going to create millions jobs as we transform our energy system. I know the oil companies don’t like it. I know the coal companies don’t like it. But that is what this planet needs: we’re going to lead the world in that direction. We’re going to transform the energy system across this planet—and create millions of jobs while we do that.’ If you had a President say that, what kind of excitement would you generate from young people all over this world?”
Whether Sanders runs or not, the prospect of such a speak-truth-to-power presidency is an appealing one. And the senator from Vermont is right: Americans do not just deserve such an option. In these times, they need a serious progressive alternative the ugly politics of austerity — and the empty politics of compromise.
John Nichols discusses another candidate of progressives’ dreams: Elizabeth Warren.