Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is some progressives' great hope to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. But to say he's a down-the-line liberal would be to misread a political career the includes plenty of nuance.
Over the weekend, Sanders spoke on gun control and the tax-exempt status of churches, and if you were hearing him for the first time, you might think he was a Republican. He defended gun owners on CNN's "State of the Union," saying 99.9 percent of them obey the law and that gun manufacturers shouldn't be held responsible for murderers "any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer."
On removing the tax-exempt status for churches that don't recognize same-sex marriage, he said he didn't know that he'd "go there" and that he respected "people who have different points of view."
Of course, neither of these positions necessarily run counter to the Democratic Party's principles -- Hillary Clinton isn't going after law-abiding gun owners, and Martin O'Malley isn't campaigning on taking away churches' tax-exempt status -- and Sanders's comments came in the context of his liberal bona fides, which he also mentioned. For example, he has voted to ban semiautomatic assault weapons and create instant background checks, and he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law in 1996 by Democratic President Bill Clinton.
But there are certain things that might complicate Sanders for those on the left -- and it wasn't just this weekend, either. In 1993, as a member of the House, he voted against the Brady bill, which required federal background checks for most gun purchases. He also voted to allow people to transport guns on Amtrak, and he previously said he didn't think stricter gun control would end mass shootings. (Sanders's home state of Vermont, while generally quite liberal, is also very pro-gun rights.)
His history with immigration reform is similar, with a mixed record of supporting things like the Dream Act and the 2013 bill, but in 2007 helping to kill that comprehensive immigration reform deal by teaming with conservative Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa) on so-called "poison pill" amendments. Other Democrats opposed the final bill, as Sanders did, but almost all who did so came from the more moderate wing of the party.
Sanders might just become some GOP-leaning voters' favorite 2016 Democrat -- and not just because he's giving Hillary Clinton a tough time. It's not hard to see some of his positions appealing to more libertarian voters like former Ron Paul fans who prefer Sanders over Rand Paul. His arguments for a middle ground on some of our most controversial social issues also could appeal to voters frustrated by hyper-partisan politics.
He has surprised even himself with the turnout he's getting at some early campaign events. The more than 2,500 people who showed up to a Friday rally in Iowa were part of the largest crowd for any candidate in Iowa this cycle. But he's not just spending all his time in Iowa or New Hampshire. Sanders has had rallies in Colorado and Wisconsin, and he told The Nation that he believes candidates should have a 50-state campaign strategy, rattling off red states he thinks Democrats, as "the party of working people," should campaign in, including Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama. On Monday, he drew 7,500 people closer to home in Portland, Maine.
Sanders is a socialist who championed progressive issues before they became more mainstream, but it's also clear that he's an independent and not a Democrat for a reason. He's beloved by liberal Democrats who feel Clinton is too moderate, but as his vision for a 50-state campaign and gun and tax-exempt comments show, he's making a play for people who might not describe themselves as "very liberal."