Following months of speculation, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will announce his presidential bid Thursday, according to The New York Times. A political independent and self-described democratic socialist, Sanders will challenge the perceived Democratic frontrunner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in the party’s primary rather than risk marginalizing his views and throwing the election to the Republicans by running as an independent. His entrance into the presidential contest should give the two-term senator a national platform on which to push his concerns: economic injustice, the push for a single-payer health care system, disastrous trade policies that erode the middle class, climate change, campaign finance, and the winnowing of the social safety net — issues that remain generally popular with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Although the senator is not expected to kick off his full campaign with a formal event in May, a senior Sanders adviser told The National Journal that he will release a formal statement on social media to declare his candidacy.
His decision is not unexpected. Sanders, who also served as Vermont’s one House representative for 16 years, has said publicly that he was considering launching a broad-based campaign for president in the past. Given that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) appears to have taken a pass this election cycle, he is likely to capture the support of many progressives enraged by corporate overreach and unaccountability in the face of growing burdens placed upon middle and working class communities.
For the moment, Sanders will join Clinton as only the second Democratic candidate, although reports indicate that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) will be throwing his hat in the ring as well in mid-May.
Sanders remains a long-shot candidate. He doesn’t have the fundraising network, the campaign staff or the polling numbers to pose a worrisome threat of overtaking the Clinton machine any time soon. But what he lacks in campaign infrastructure Sanders could well make up by energizing a progressive base around campaign finance reform, economic inequality and health care reform.
As one Democratic operative on Team Clinton told MSNBC, "I have nightmares that someone like a Bernie Sanders will catch fire and cause trouble for Hillary Clinton.”
Regardless, Sanders has made the Democratic primary contest much more interesting. He has broken the easy storyline of Clinton’s confirmation, and while he might not pose much of an electoral threat, his commitment to an economic justice platform and serious discussion of economic and trade policy will force Clinton to take public stands on matters crucial to her working and middle-class constituency. Sanders might even succeed at pushing Clinton, whose Wall Street ties are bemoaned by liberal political commentators, further left.
So who is this guy who changed the contours of the Democratic presidential primary? Here are seven important things to know about Bernie Sanders.
1. He made a nearly nine-hour speech against the extension of the Bush Era tax cuts for the wealthiest
Back in 2010, Sanders made headlines — and attracted so much online attention that the Senate video feed crashed — for speaking for almost nine hours on the Senate floor against a measure that would extend the Bush administration’s huge tax cuts for the wealthy. Following the Great Recession, the tax cuts were a major reason that the national deficit skyrocketed and placed more of a financial burden on working and middle class families.
“It is Robin Hood in reverse,” Sanders said in his filibuster speech. “We are taking from the middle class and working families, and we are giving it to the wealthiest people in this country.”
The hashtag, #Filibernie, will hopefully be making a comeback during this 2016 presidential contest.
2. Sanders' much-feared radicalism isn't... all that radical
While many pundits like to dismiss Sanders easily as a “socialist radical” type verging on communist, his positions on many political issues are right in line with the more liberal side of progressives. Sanders opposes free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that he sees as responsible for wrecking the jobs market for working class Americans and for reforming the American economy in the multinational corporate firm’s interests. He recognizes climate change is a real scientific phenomenon and that human environmental practices (or lack thereof) have contributed to the unprecedented warming of the planet.
He supports same-sex marriage; back in 1996, he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act. And he strongly advocates for a constitutional amendment that would overrule the Citizens United decision and allow for greater campaign finance regulation.
Basically, Sanders isn’t advocating a complete Soviet-style overthrow of the capitalist market economy and democratic governance structures. His major policy initiatives aim to make the economy more fair, to support the middle and working classes, and to ensure that special and moneyed interests don’t have undue political capital.
3. Sanders was first elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont by a margin of ten votes. And then he won the town over by focusing on snow plowing
When the independent first ran against a Democratic incumbent in 1981, he campaigned on an economic rights platform, opposing both a redevelopment plan that wanted to turn riverside land into luxury condos and proposed regressive property taxes. His victory — he won 4,030 votes to 4,020 — took the city’s Democratic establishment by surprise. For the first two years, they sought to block and obstruct the young, inexperienced mayor at every turn. They refused to hold hearings to allow him to appoint new administrative staff. At one point, Sanders even received a parking ticket for leaving his car in the mayor’s lot.
Instead of throwing up his hands or creating a communist town, Sanders organized people to run against his Democratic opponents and focused on providing city services, particularly the all-important snow plowing.
The next time he was up for re-election, Sanders won handily with 52 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Explaining why the Burlington residents turned out in droves to support him at the ballot box on the second go-round, Sanders concludes, “Because we kept our promises. We did pay attention to the low-income and working-class areas. They saw parks being improved, they saw their streets being plowed, and being paved. People saw — 'Oh my god, government works!'"
4. Sanders calls it like he sees it: if it walks like a GOP obstructionist and talks like a GOP obstructionist, then it probably is
When asked to assess the Obama administration, Saunders didn’t descend into the usual liberal gripes about how much of a centrist their former ideal has turned out to be now that he is firmly ensconced in the White House. Instead, he directed his ire directly at the Republican Party’s strategic assault on the president’s priorities.
"[President Barack Obama] believed that people could sit down in Congress and have serious discussions about serious issues and move forward. Well, he was wrong," Sanders told Vox's Andrew Prokop. "There was an unprecedented level of obstructionism [from the GOP] starting literally from the day he got inaugurated. …That has been their political strategy, and by and large it's been reasonably successful."
If Sanders is elected president, then it’s clear that he won’t be wasting any time playing political games with lawmakers who refuse to even come to the table prepared to seriously engage in the political process.
5. He is the Amendment King
In 2005, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi crowned Sanders the “Amendment King” for his skill at bringing together left-right coalitions in the Senate to push through amendments. Since the Republican Revolution in the mid-1990s, Sanders has had more amendments approved by floor vote than any other congressman.
“Sanders took on powerful adversaries, including Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse, the Export-Import Bank and the Bush administration,” Taibbi wrote. “And by using the basic tools of democracy — floor votes on clearly posed questions, with the aid of painstakingly built coalitions of allies from both sides of the aisle — he, a lone Independent, beat them all.”
Many of his political wins involve measures that are popular with the American public more generally but are blocked, for one reason or the other, by special interests in the legislature. And many of his political wins on the Senate floor are ultimately rolled back in later stages of Congressional wrangling. But that sort of knack for finding political allies on particular policy proposals rather than adhering to strict party lines would serve Sanders well in the presidential hot seat.
6. Sanders can speak to the white working class that Democrats are so afraid of losing
Sanders isn’t only good at brokering political coalitions on the Senate floor – his longstanding electoral success in Vermont demonstrates that his politics speaks to white, older and rural voters as well as with the typical Democratic base. After all, Vermont isn’t just a haven for Birkenstock-clad, weed-loving liberals. The state is the second whitest, second oldest and second most rural, Prokop notes.
"I do not know how you can concede the white working class to the Republican Party, which is working overtime to destroy the working class in America," Sanders told Prokop. "The idea that Democrats are losing among seniors when you have a major Republican effort to destroy Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is literally beyond my comprehension."
And Sanders has enjoyed widespread support among people in Vermont over several decades. It will be interesting to see if he can get his message about bolstering the social safety net and passing tax policy and economic reforms that work for everyone to resonate with the white working class in other areas of the country.
7. His biggest concern is that America is turning into an oligarchy. And he remains committed to using whatever political platform he can to prevent that
Sanders is deeply troubled about the consolidation of economic and material resources and political power in the hands of a small, privileged elite. Arguably, the signs are everywhere: the influx of dark money into the recent elections; the huge disparities in wealth between the average American and the caste of the superwealthy; the relative impunity that large corporations enjoy from government interference, in terms of taxes, regulation or punishment; the amount of time congressional lawmakers have to spend on the phone each day raising money from special interests for their next campaign; the redrawing of the legislative map to protect a Republican minority against a growing Democratic electorate; the thirty years of stagnating wages; the cuts to the social safety nets wrapped up under the gauze of “entitlement reform;” the slow but steady regressive shift of the state tax codes and continued federal tax breaks for the wealthy.
“Today in my view, the most serious problem we face is the grotesque and growing level of wealth and income inequality,” Sanders said in a February speech at the Brookings Institution. “This a profound moral issue, this is an economic issue and this is a political issue.”
If standing up for a more fair distribution of material resources and political access is radical — I tend to think that most Americans would support such a shift if it was framed in those terms — then Sanders certainly looks more ready to embrace the term than his current rivals for the presidency.
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