Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders wins over W.Va. superdelegate Boxer: Sanders appeals to young voters with grandpa effect The Trail 2016: Interleague play MORE could put a stamp on the next White House, even if he never sits in the Oval Office.
The independent senator from Vermont insisted he was “in this race to win” when he launched his presidential candidacy at the Capitol on Thursday. But it’s difficult to find many people, even among Democrats, who believe he has a credible shot at defeating Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonEmbattled pharma CEO endorses Trump RNC launches ad against 'Crooked Hillary' Sanders wins over W.Va. superdelegate MORE.
Many on the left fervently hope that those factors will combine to provide Sanders with enough muscle to push Clinton in their direction, and away from the centrism that has characterized much of her political career.
Those activists have been heartened by Clinton’s more populist rhetoric of late, but remain skeptical of her.
“In Sanders we are seeing someone who argues for breaking up the big banks. … We have seen no statement to restore Glass-Steagall from Sen. Clinton,” said Ryan Greenwood of the leftist National People’s Action Campaign, referring to the 1930s banking reform law that separated investment and commercial banking, and was repealed during President Clinton’s administration.
Overall, Greenwood added, “We would see him articulating a bold stand, and no such boldness is being articulated by Sen. Clinton.”
Some Democrats, who are more centrist than Greenwood, believe Sanders could be a significant player in the race, and could at least further sharpen Clinton’s positions on issues ranging from the economy to the Keystone XL pipeline.
“She is starting to get specific anyway, but he will push her on things like Keystone, and trade deals, and expanding Social Security,” veteran Democratic consultant Bob Shrum said. “I don’t know where she will end up on those issues.”
Shrum does not believe that Sanders will seriously endanger Clinton’s claim on the nomination. But he argues that Sanders’s fundamental political strengths are underrated, including his ability as a debater and the fact that “he is what he is — he’s authentic.”
“If he gets 20 percent, 25 percent in Iowa, he will get delegates,” Shrum added. “The same in New Hampshire. He could have an impact.”
The template for a presidential bid of this type is well-established.
Democratic primaries over the past thirty years have often included candidates who appeared to have an outside chance, at best, of winning the nomination, but who were running to put particular issues on the national political stage.
Among the examples are civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, who ran in 1984 and 1988; then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), who ran in 2004 and 2008; and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rev. Al Sharpton, both of whom ran in 2004.
“Whether or not I was elected, it wasn’t as important as making sure that a constituency inside the party surfaced that challenged not only the war [in Iraq] but called for the party to take a new direction,” Kucinich recalled in an interview with The Hill in March.
This time around, progressive activists are eagerly anticipating debates between Sanders and Clinton, especially since they believe the party’s grassroots has grown more receptive to left-wing policy ideas in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the Great Recession.
In terms of specifics, they cite a campaign to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a desire to reduce the cost of college education (Sanders supports two years of free tuition at public universities), and a broader impulse to pare back the role of big money in politics.
Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that even at the grassroots level, there are “all these rivers flowing in the same direction — toward a Democratic Party that stands for big, bold, economically populist platforms in the 2016 election.”
He added that it would be “a big bonus if there are candidates in the race who are also echoing these themes. On a debate stage, if one candidate takes a bold position, there is an incentive for another candidate to match that position or to raise it — a race to the top.”
But the message from other Democrats is: Not so fast. The Sanders skeptics say that the kind of scenario outlined by Green amounts to a leftist fantasy. They point not just to Clinton’s advantages in organization and fundraising, but to the huge gulf in poll ratings between the former secretary of State and the Vermonter.
In four polls conducted in April, Sanders did not come within 50 percentage points of Clinton among Democratic voters. The most recent, from Fox News, had Clinton on 62 percent support and Sanders on 4. The best result for Sanders was from a Quinnipiac University survey, in which he claimed 8 percent backing to Clinton’s 60 percent.
Asked about Sanders’s likely impact on the race, a D.C.-based Democratic strategist who declined to be named responded: “Minimal. The reality is he’s not a candidate who anyone believes can beat Hillary.”
Sanders could only leverage his support in a way that would shift Clinton’s positions if he posed a more serious threat, this consultant theorized.
“Last time I checked, he is basically a socialist. And the reality is, that is just not a viable position, even within the Democratic Party,” the strategist said.
But liberals like Ryan Greenwood insist such labels don’t matter as much as they once did.
“A voice that describes himself as a democratic socialist is a voice that needs to be heard,” he said.
Clinton, meanwhile, took to Twitter to in response to Sanders’s announcement.
“I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America’s middle class,” she wrote. “I welcome him to the race.”