Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) clocked 15% in a Quinnipiac poll of likely Democratic voters Thursday. But he’s clocking a lot more than that in the political press corps, while Hillary Clinton’s campaign telegraphed this morning that they’re legitimately scared of his impact on the race. Everyone is suddenly taking Bernie Sanders seriously.
This is not because Sanders stands a chance of winning, but because his political consistency and liberal bona fides form the perfect left bumper for Clinton’s otherwise freeform campaign. Sample headlines: Bernie Sanders: Why the guy who won’t win matters. Why Bernie Sanders matters, even if he can’t win. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have to win the Democratic primary to do a lot of good. You Don’t Need to Think Bernie Can Win to Take Him Seriously. Bernie Sanders Won’t Win. But His Ideas Might. Senator Bernie Sanders won’t win in 2016 — but he will still change American politics. Bernie Sanders really matters: He doesn’t have to win to build a progressive movement. That’s a non-exhaustive list.
These articles — none of them wrong! — all argue the same essential point: Sanders’ well-articulated policy positions on income inequality, the environment, and campaign finance will secure those issues in the Democratic primary and keep Clinton honest about them. On campaign finance especially Clinton must execute a delicate dance, simultaneously raising historic amounts of cash while criticizing a rigged system. Outsourcing the fire-and-brimstone to Sanders could allow Clinton to side with his critique while arguing for her need to financially compete against the eventual GOP nominee. The issue stays in play, the frontrunner signals her endorsement of it: thus does Bernie Sanders matter.
To this hardening wisdom was added a new layer Thursday when Politico published the fears of the Clinton campaign, which, at least according to what they’re publicly (and anonymously) saying, focus more on Sanders than likely candidate Martin O’Malley. Have a block quote:
Insiders familiar with the Clinton campaign’s thinking described it as “frightened” of Sanders — not that he would win the nomination, but that he could damage her with the activist base by challenging her on core progressive positions in debates and make her look like a centrist or corporatist. The source described the campaign as “pleased,” at least, that O’Malley and Sanders will split the anti-Clinton vote. A Clinton spokesman declined to comment.
This is, probably, bunk. But the fact of the article, which couldn’t have been written without the right sources whispering the right things, shows that Clinton wants a Sanders campaign taken seriously as much as anyone else does. Bouncing from Chipotle visits to question clocks, the Clinton campaign is desperately in need of structure, the type a predictable foil could bring.
And Sanders is predictable, the comforting version of consistent in the political world. His major comments of his campaign so far — on the need to emulate Scandinavia’s social welfare systems, America’s lopsided income inequalities, the moral danger of billionaires — can be found almost word-for-word in Mark Leibovich’s 2007 profile of Sanders upon assuming his Senate office. Clinton has changed her positions on several issues since then; Sanders is still using the same syntax.
The media and political stars, then, are aligned for a serious Sanders campaign. Whether he’ll play footnote or spoiler in the Democratic contest remains to be seen; either way, Sanders has the attention of the media and his giant Democratic rival. For a guy who was a progressive hobby horse until a few weeks ago, Sanders has to be happy to find he matters.
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