Ever since people started thinking about the 2016 presidential primaries, the assumption has been that the Republican side will feature a fascinating and bloody donnybrook with no initial frontrunner and as many as a dozen potentially realistic candidacies, while the Democratic contest will be no contest at all, but rather a coronation for Hillary Clinton.
But might we finally have a real clash of ideas on the Democratic side? Yes, we might:
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has spent months fishing for a strategist to guide his potential 2016 presidential campaign. On Monday, he hooked a big one: Tad Devine, one of the Democratic Party’s leading consultants and a former high-level campaign aide to Al Gore, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis.
“If he runs, I’m going to help him,” Devine said in an interview. “He is not only a longtime client but a friend. I believe he could deliver an enormously powerful message that the country is waiting to hear right now and do it in a way that succeeds.”
Devine and Sanders, who first worked together on Sanders’s campaigns in the 1990s, have been huddling in recent weeks, mapping out how the brusque progressive senator could navigate a primary and present a formidable challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The height of Devine’s influence may be in the recent past, but he still brings establishment credibility that could lead people in the media to give Sanders more attention. His involvement is also a sign that Sanders isn’t just thinking he’ll get a van and drive around New Hampshire, but instead that he’d mount a serious campaign, no matter how formidable the obstacles to victory. That could mean a genuinely interesting debate about the problems America confronts and how the Democratic party should address them.
Sanders says he’ll center his campaign on economic inequality and the struggles of the middle class, and this is what Clinton needs to address as well. That may be the most important message for Democrats of the 2014 election, not to mention Barack Obama’s continuing low approval ratings: Democrats need to figure out how to address persistent economic insecurity, stagnating wages, and the failure of the recovery’s gains to achieve widespread distribution.
If you look at most economic measures, the Obama administration seems spectacularly successful. Since the economy stopped hemorrhaging jobs at the end of 2009, it has added 10 million. We’ve now had nine straight months with over 200,000 jobs created, which hadn’t happened since the mid-1990’s. Unemployment is below 6 percent, GDP growth is steady, and the federal deficit is less than half what it was when Obama took office. Yet his approval on the economy is an anemic 40 percent.
The reasons why are many and complicated (the most important is that wages are not increasing), but one problem Democrats face is that they don’t have a coherent story to tell on the economy that explains what they’ve done right, connects with people’s current displeasure, and shows a way forward. If by focusing on the economy Sanders forces Clinton to articulate that story and support it with a specific agenda that she could implement if she wins, he will have done her a great service.
Of course, he’d say he isn’t running to do Hillary Clinton any favors. But the reality is that he would. By critiquing her from the left, he could pull her in his direction in order to satisfy primary voters, which on many issues would wind up being to her advantage. At the same time, the broader message their debates would communicate to the general electorate is that she’s a moderate. When Republicans try to argue that she’s some wild-eyed Alinskyite radical bent on turning America socialist (just as they did with Obama), she can say, “I ran against an actual socialist in the primaries, and it’s pretty obvious we aren’t the same person.”
A strong Sanders candidacy will do something else: make liberal Democrats feel that their opinions and their concerns are getting a fair hearing in the 2016 process. Sanders is an eloquent and unapologetic voice for liberalism. His presence as a real contender on the campaign trail would assure liberals that their party can still be a vehicle for their ideology, even if the candidate who triumphs is the more centrist establishment figure. And that’s something they could use right now.