Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is officially running for president, meaning that there will be at least two contestants in the Democratic race (after what’s been going on in the city where he was mayor for eight years, Martin O’Malley may be reconsidering). I am obligated by law to point out that Sanders’ chances of beating Hillary Clinton are slight, but the question many have already raised is what effect his candidacy will have on Clinton. Will it pull her to the left? Give her room to run to the right? Force her into missteps? It might do any of those things, or none of them.
But Sanders could actually cause more headaches for the Republicans running for president — if he succeeds on focusing the campaign on his area of interest.
To understand why, you first have to know that Sanders’ candidacy will be almost entirely about economic issues. Advocacy for the interests of what we might call the non-wealthy has always been at the top of Sanders’ agenda and at the heart of his political identity. That’s the reason he’s finally running now, at the tail end of a long career: the national debate has moved in his direction, with issues like wage stagnation and inequality now being brought up even by some conservatives.
But as far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, that’s just fine. Bernie Sanders isn’t going to pull her to the left, because she was already moving that way. She’s talking about issues like inequality and criminal justice reform in terms that she might not have used 10 or 20 years ago, and in some cases she’s actually taking positions that she wouldn’t have then. As Greg and I have argued, whether this evolution is sincere isn’t particularly relevant, because she’s reflecting the consensus within her party, and if she becomes president her actions will follow along. The reason she doesn’t have to be pulled to the left by Sanders, O’Malley, or anyone else is that the entire environment around these issues has changed. Talking about them in more liberal terms isn’t just good for her in the primaries, it’s good for her in the general election, too.
Nevertheless, Sanders’ presence will concentrate the debate even more on economic issues, because that’s most of what he’ll be stressing. Every bit of attention he gets will serve to keep the economic discussion at the forefront. And you know who isn’t so happy about that? The Republican candidates.
They’ll all have their economic plans, of course, and will be happy to tell you why they’re superior. But the current debate on the economy puts them at a disadvantage. They know that they’re at odds with the public on many economic issues, like the minimum wage, paid vacation time, or increasing taxes on the wealthy. Though they’ve begun to talk about inequality, it’s obvious that they haven’t quite figured out how to address the issue without running up against their traditional advocacy for things like cutting upper-income taxes and reducing regulations on corporations and Wall Street.
When Sanders says, “We need an economy that works for all of us and not just for a handful of billionaires,” few voters disagree. Republicans say they want that, too, but the fact that some specific billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers are so eagerly bankrolling their campaigns makes it an awkward argument for them to make.
And Sanders will draw attention to the billionaires funding Republican campaigns: At his presser today, he was asked about donations to the Clinton Foundation, and he pushed back by asking: Where are the conflicts of interests when the Koch brothers are spending hundreds of millions to influence the outcome of the presidential race? In other words, Sanders won’t only attack Clinton on the money question; he’ll helpfully point out that GOP attacks on this are rather questionable, given their own funding sources.
The best outcome for Republicans is if the campaign revolves around other issues where they might find more support for their positions and they can more easily attack Hillary Clinton. The more attention Bernie Sanders gets, the more attention economic inequality gets, which is something Republicans would rather avoid.