Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is waging an improbable presidential campaign, but he won’t disappear after this election. Nor will his followers: Perhaps they’ll be called the Bernie Brigade or Sanderistas.
The socialist probably has no more than a 10 percent shot at winning the Democratic nomination — and that’s if something bad happens to Hillary Clinton or, less likely, if after winning in Wisconsin this week, he scores a huge upset in New York two weeks later and transforms the race. Yet Sanders, who for the left wing was a consolation choice after Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t run, has a message that will continue to resonate, especially among the multitudes of young supporters.
The clarity and coherence of the campaign have surprised even those who sharply disagree with him.
“Bernie has run a much better campaign than I ever thought he would,” says Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican leader and Mississippi conservative. Sanders is setting much of the Democratic agenda, forcing Clinton to move left by opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Keystone pipeline and by frequently assailing Wall Street.
Even Republicans have picked up some of his populist rhetoric. If, as the oddsmakers now predict, Clinton wins the nomination and the presidency, Sanders, with two years left in his Senate term, will be looking over her left shoulder. If Democrats, including the next president or the next Democratic Senate leader (likely Chuck Schumer of New York), cozy up to Wall Street, expect a Sanders-Warren barrage.
The so-called bank bailout in 2008 probably prevented the economy from going over the cliff. But Sanders has reinforced a public sense that bankers are making out like bandits while Main Street struggles. One virtual certainty: the next Treasury secretary won’t come from Wall Street.
Sanders also has galvanized public outrage over Supreme Court decisions that unleashed a flood of big money into politics. Most Americans agree with him that the U.S. system of money in politics is corrupt. Both President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama paid lip service to campaign-finance reform and then put it on the back burner. Sanders’ campaign ensures that another President Clinton won’t have that luxury.
Some of his radical notions, including sky-high taxes on the wealthy and a totally government-run health care system, are non-starters. But the public has moved closer to his view on economic fairness, and his call for free public higher education is a debate that will endure.
Sanders has attracted extraordinary support from young voters, beating Clinton by huge margins. These Americans have grown up in tough times, with more limited opportunities. They’re skeptical about the establishment and the socialist label doesn’t have the negative connotation it does for many older Americans. The question is whether Sanders will keep these young people politically energized. The last such cause-centric pied piper was Eugene McCarthy in 1968, though he basically checked out of Democratic politics after he lost the presidential nomination.
Katy Harriger, a political scientist at Wake Forest University who has studied the youth vote, thinks that Sanders has the capacity to keep them mobilized on issues such as campaign financing and economic inequality. That engagement could carry to the off-year elections, when participation of young voters traditionally drops off.
“He has tapped into something very real and has credibility with a lot of these young voters,” Harriger says.
Unlike McCarthy, whose views evolved over time, Sanders has been consistently to the left for almost a half-century. Although he started in dingy basements and sparsely attended rallies for lost causes, he now has a national megaphone that he’s not likely to relinquish.
He also will have more than 2 million contributors, mostly small donations, and almost to 4 million have clicked “like”on his Facebook page.
In today’s politics, that’s a machine.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.