Sending a message
Increasingly, the name of Sen. Bernard Sanders is being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in the 2016 election. In Vermont last week, Sanders confirmed that if the only way to bring issues of economic equality before the voters would be for him to run, then he would consider it.
Thus, the Democratic Party is on notice that the left wing of the party is not going to acquiesce quietly to a centrist candidate who trembles in fear of corporate power. Progressives have simmered with unhappiness about the Obama administration’s willingness to water down his agenda in a futile effort to find compromise with Republicans. The litany of complaint is familiar: The stimulus was too small; the crackdown on Wall Street was too timid; Obamacare was a troublesome compromise; action on climate change has been slow.
Democrats know President Barack Obama has been forced to trim his agenda because of Republican intransigence and the dysfunction of the House of Representatives. But many Democrats are tired of the compromises that have allowed inequality and corporate power to grow. And they are wary of nominating a candidate looking to pursue new half measures.
Hillary Clinton is the candidate everyone mentions as the front runner, and as a veteran of the Bill Clinton era, her coziness with corporate America and the middle-way politics of her husband may be cause for alarm on the progressive wing. As a skilled politician, she may want to avoid riling up the forces of big money in order to ease her path toward power. But from the progressive point of view, taking on the power of big money is the essential task at hand.
Enter Sanders. He may or may not run, but Clinton and others who do run know that their positions will not be unchallenged from the left. There are others who might be inclined to enter the race if it appears that Hillary is too vague, too tepid or too cagey. The darling of the left at the moment is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has a long history as a champion of the little guy against the predatory behavior of banks and other companies. She has been a sharp critic of Wall Street and defender of the consumer, able to articulate in commonsense language the way banks, real estate companies and others take advantage of people and what to do about it.
It’s not clear whether Warren will want to run. If she did, she would likely give voice to the concerns that might otherwise motivate a Sanders candidacy.
For those in Vermont familiar with Sanders’ story, a run for the presidency would be a remarkable event. He has occupied a singular place in Vermont politics: a left-wing radical in the 1970s and a critic of both major parties, an avowed socialist who was elected mayor of Burlington by a margin of 10 votes. His critique of corporate power has changed little through the years. What has changed is America: History has more or less proven his critique to be a trenchant and instructive analysis.
It would be a remarkable turn of events for Sanders to run in part because one of his political heroes mounted his own quixotic presidential run. Eugene Debs, socialist leader and union organizer, ran five times, the last time from jail, where he had been placed because of his criticism of the U.S. entry into World War I.
Another candidate of the past was “Fighting Bob” LaFollette of Wisconsin, a House member, governor and U.S. senator who was a leader of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. LaFollette was a champion of many of the issues that concern Sanders, including monopoly corporate power, consumer rights and racial and gender equality. He began as a Republican insurgent who took on the business-friendly Republican establishment, and, in 1924, he ran for president as a Progressive against Calvin Coolidge, the Republican, and John Davis, the Democrat. He won 17 percent of the popular vote.
Sanders does not enjoy the standing that either Debs or LaFollette had as leaders of substantial and important political movements. Still, Sanders has been a vocal critic of the Republicans and more or less an ally of Obama’s. He has achieved national recognition because he is able to express his views with clarity and conviction, and increasingly, they resonate with the American people.
A Sanders run would be a less serious effort than the race mounted by Howard Dean in 2004. Sanders means to send a message. Business as usual is not good enough. It is a message that is already being heard.