Sen. Bernie Sanders, the irascible Independent socialist from Vermont, is strongly hinting that he will challenge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president. That can’t be good news for Clinton.
No one, of course, thinks that Sanders could deny Clinton the 2016 Democratic nomination if she decides to go for it. And from the sound of her remarks to Iowa Democrats at a fundraising steak fry in Indianola, Iowa, over the weekend, she is indeed “baack” for another run for president.
But Sanders, 73, a one-time leftist student radical at the University of Chicago who launched his political career as mayor of Burlington, Vt., could be a pesky thorn in Clinton’s side in the early going of the Democratic primary contest, even if he doesn’t put a dent in her lead. And if he decides to mount an independent candidacy past primary season, he potentially could siphon off some of her liberal support in a tight general election campaign.
“The key decision is whether he runs as a Democrat, an Independent or both — leaving the party primaries at some point to strike out on his own,” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, told The Fiscal Times. “He may keep her further to the left that she’d like in the primaries, and then again in the general election.”
In short, his planned visit to Iowa in the coming weeks shouldn’t be taken lightly by Clinton forces.
Clinton’s potential problem is illustrated by the results of NBC News/Marist polls released in July: While Clinton would trounce Vice President Joe Biden or any other potential Democratic challengers in the primary, things would tighten up considerably for her in the general election campaign. For example, in the battleground state of Iowa, Clinton was tied with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), 45 percent to 45 percent, in a hypothetical matchup, while she led New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie by just one point, 44 percent to 43 percent. She held a slightly larger 46 percent to 42 percent lead over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
In matchups in New Hampshire, Clinton led Paul by just three points and was ahead of Christie and Bush by five points.
With Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) adamant that she will not challenge Clinton in 2016, Sanders is arguably the strongest voice of Democrats on the far left. If Sanders decides to run as an independent, he could play spoiler and hurt Clinton by drawing away Democratic votes — not unlike what Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in the 2000 election when he ran as a Green Party candidate and helped elect George W. Bush president. “Sanders is no Ross Perot, who got 19 percent in November 1992, but I could see Sanders getting several percent in November, much like Ralph Nader did in 2000,” Sabato said.
Some experts think Sanders is more likely to run in the Democratic primaries as a way of pushing Clinton further to the left on her positions while burnishing his credentials as a possible running mate.
“My guess is that if Sanders runs, that what he will do is go into the Democratic primaries, and use it much more as a vehicle to try to pull Clinton to the left than act as a Ralph Nader-type spoiler in 20016,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional and political expert with the American Enterprise Institute.
Sanders, a two-term independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats, insists he has no problems with Clinton personally, but that she may not be the change agent the country needs. “The issue is not Hillary. I’ve known Hillary Clinton for many years,” Sanders said over the weekend on NBC’s Meet the Press show. “I have a lot of respect for Hillary Clinton. The question is: At a time when so many people have seen a decline in their standard of living, when the wealthiest people and largest corporations are doing phenomenally well, the American people want change.”
He said that the public feels “profound anger” at both political parties, and that he would promote a message of change to try to appeal to angry middle-class voters who still are struggling economically five years after the Great Recession officially ended.
Sanders, who looks like a disheveled college professor with his unruly white hair and glasses, captured the national spotlight in December 2010 by delivering a marathon speech on the Senate floor vigorously opposing an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. He endorsed the “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement in 2011, and recently, as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, he helped design an overhaul of the scandal-ridden VA health care system.
On the campaign trail, Sanders could take advantage of a populist movement sweeping the Democratic Party — one that helped to catapult Warren, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others into office.
Clinton enjoys widespread support within her party, although her appeal to liberals proved highly tenuous during her unsuccessful Democratic primary campaign against President Obama in 2008. In advance of her book tour last summer, Clinton sought to burnish her populist bona fides by warning that the country must “deal with the cancer of [income] inequality” and is facing another “Gilded Age of robber barons,” The Washington Post reported in late May.
But her subsequent comment in a televised interview that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, left the White House “dead broke” — when they subsequently made millions of dollars from book contracts and speeches — did nothing to discourage criticism from the left about Bill Clinton’s economic policies in the 1990s and the couple’s close ties to Wall Street. Nor has the left ever fully forgiven Hillary Clinton for her Senate vote in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war sought by Republican President George W. Bush — a vote that Obama handily exploited during their Democratic primary battles.
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