Election 2016

Hey Bernie, If You’re Going To Run For President in 2016, Do It As a Democrat

Bernie Sanders has presidential ambitions. But how will he run?

Photo Credit: FriendsOfBernie.org

Maybe you’ve heard. Vermont’s Independent U.S. Senator, Bernie Sanders, might run for president in 2016. He told Time.com that America’s problems are the worst since the ‘30s Great Depression, that someone has to fight for average Americans against big money, and clearly, that he would make a better president than Hillary Clinton.

“I am prepared to be that candidate,” Bernie told Timein early March. “If there are other candidates who come forward who can do it better than me, that’s fine. I don’t again wake up with a burning ambition to be President of the United States.”

Two weeks later, Bernie sat down with The Nation’s John Nichols and confirmed that he might not be losing sleep over it, but he was “seriously” exploring a run. America needs “a political revolution,” Bernie said, which he described as an updated version of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1980s Rainbow Coalition. Then Bernie raised the first tough question he’d face—would he run as a Democrat—as Jackson did in 1984?

“The dilemma is that if you run outside the Democratic Party, then what you’re doing—and you have to think hard about this—is, you’re not just running a race for president, you’re really running to build an entire political movement,” Bernie said. “In doing that, you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected—the [Ralph] Nader dilemma.”

Bernie said that he planned to keep talking to activists, which a spokeswoman at his campaign committee said he’s doing. “The bolder, more radical approach is running outside of the two-party system,” he told Nichols, before backtracking a bit and saying that he would study running as an Independent or a Democrat. “Those are the options that progressives around the country are going to have to wrestle with. And that’s certainly something that I will be listening to.”

Perhaps we can help Bernie with his choice. The bolder, more radical approach would be running as a Democrat in the presidential primaries against Hillary Clinton, not running a safe, symbolic and carping campaign from the sidelines. Why? Because if Bernie wants to confront the Democrat’s centrist, corporate evolution and make ordinary Americans feel that there is a national party speaking for them, why not try to recast their brand?

Then we can all see how Hillary reacts, especially if there’s a groundswell for Bernie. Maybe she won’t retreat to the pro-corporate center, as many expect, and will update her definition of what addressing economic inequality looks like. Perhaps, as was the case with Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition three decades ago, there will be a riveting spectacle and debate that will break the spell cast by Fox News on white, working-class voters who’ve sided with the GOP in recent years—against their economic interests. 

Full disclosure: in another century, I worked on the campaign that first elected Bernie to the House. Since going to Washington in 1991, he has essentially operated his office as a Democrat. He’s caucused with the party, voted with the party, President Obama came to Vermont to campaign for him, and Senate Leader Harry Reid rewarded his record and loyalty by making Bernie chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and putting him on the banking committee and other important posts before that.

While I have doubts he will do it, I really think that Bernie should run as a Democrat. It would be a shame if he does not. If you read what he says about what the country needs, what the party’s shortcomings are, and what kind of political revolution in needed to save American politics from being a bought-and-sold playground for billionaires, it’s what long-suffering Democrats and Independents want to hear and agree with.

“One of the things that I find most disturbing—in fact, beyond comprehension—is that the Democrats now lose, by a significant number, the votes of white working-class people,” Bernie told The Nation. “How can that be? When you have a Republican Party that wants to destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc., etc., why are so many people voting against their own economic interests? It happens because the Democrats have not been strong in making clear which side they are on, have not been strong in taking on Wall Street and corporate America, which is what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s.”

Bernie can do better than just raise this question—and say the answer is Democratic drift. We know by now that many white, working-class voters vote as a tribe against the targets that right-wing media outlets pretend are threatening them: minorities, gays, people who live on the coasts, educated elites, even atheists. Bernie’s challenge, should he run, is to break through the worn-out and somewhat cerebral notion that people should vote their economic interest, and instead unmask the fake Fox News enemies list.

Bernie could confront working- and middle-class voters to re-examine what’s threatening them. He’s a visceral and smart politician who has lived in Vermont, a non-affluent state, for decades. He knows how to talk to non-wealthy people. The challenge is bigger than being the not-Hillary alternative. It’s about grappling with, and addressing, the fact that white voters—a majority of whom voted for Mitt Romney in 2012—are motivated by, and respond to, phobias that are not just economic interests.

Starting there, and laying out why a progressive agenda is their real remedy, would be very powerful. Bernie was clear that he liked and respected Hillary. But he also said she was neither the person, nor the type of politician, that’s needed next in the White House.

“If you talk about the need for a political revolution in America, I think it’s fair to say that Secretary Clinton probably will not be one of the more active people,” he told Time before saying that he would make a better president. “Let me also add this. I don’t think it’s a question of a leader. I don’t think that’s the question. It’s a question of a coalition of people. It’s a question of bringing unions who represent many, many millions of workers. It’s a question of bringing minority groups that represent millions of people, women’s groups together, environmental groups together.”

Besides possibly updating those last remarks to include a new way to reach disaffected whites, how Bernie runs also matters. He faces a conundrum that has vexed progressives for decades: what’s more effective, tilting at political windmills and the establishment from the outside, or trying to force change from inside—rebuilding that windmill? The harder task seems to be helping America have a major political party that’s not a lightweight version of its top competitor.  

What does Bernie have to lose by running as a Democrat? He’s up for re-election in 2018 and won his last race with 71 percent of the vote—so it’s not his Vermont Senate seat. He can transfer any or all of the $4 million in cash he has in his federal campaign committee to a presidential exploratory committee, Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said. So money isn’t exactly the issue either, as a presidential campaign always raises one’s donor base, should he worry about a Senate re-election.

What Bernie has to lose is the self-styled Socialist branding that he’s held onto all these years by saying, “Okay, I can do this as a Democrat.” Does anybody really think that his political identity will disappear; or that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a history of social democratic populism? Perhaps what he has to lose, most of all, is that he won’t succeed, because uppermost Party circles will try to block him—like the GOP tries to thwart Obama at every turn.

Running as an Independent presidential candidate is tremendous work, such as getting on 50 state ballots. But it’s also easier in some respects. An Independent run gives Bernie a podium akin to the coverage he has already received in Time and The Nation, where he freely talks about the revolution that’s needed now. He will generate a lot of fawning coverage, like this piece from the Wonkette blog, entitled, “Please, Oh, Please, Run.”

But taking that route gives Hillary and the mainstream media every excuse to ignore why a real progressive agenda is needed. It also prevents the Democratic Party from evolving and clearly distinguishing itself from Republicans to voters. If he runs as an Independent, Bernie won’t just be barred from big televised debates; he won’t be able to challenge the Democratic Party’s agenda and identity—even if that means debating Hillary’s husband, who, as everyone knows, is incapable of sitting idly by.

Success in politics cannot be predicted. But one lesson that progressives have learned in recent decades is that talking the good talk is not enough. Nobody in power yields until they feel threatened by large numbers of people who have a stake in the outcome. This much is certain: if you’re running, run to win. The time for symbolic campaigns is over.

So, Bernie, want to know what the “bolder, more radical approach” is? It’s not being the perpetual outsider. It’s stepping into the lion’s den. It’s updating your “rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer” rhetoric with dismantling the fake fears pushed by Fox News on white voters. It’s convincing Americans that they have been fed a false bill of good from wealthy right-wingers, and that a progressive agenda helps them.

If you’re going to run, do it as a Democrat. Push the party back to its progressive roots. Nobody who you seek to speak for will fault you. They’ll respect you and be watching very, very carefully.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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