Eric Davis: Sanders could spice up election
Earlier this month, Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in the nation’s capital. The speech allowed Sanders, who is considering declaring his candidacy for president, to become better known to the Washington press and policy community. A video of Sanders’ remarks, and the subsequent discussion with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., is available on the Brookings website.
The speech was a trial run for Sanders’ presidential campaign. Like any candidate’s standard stump speech, Sanders began with a brief account of his political career, and then went on to present his positions on policy issues.
The history began with Sanders noting how he ran for several Vermont statewide offices in the 1970s as a Liberty Union candidate, receiving only a few percent of the vote each time, then was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 by a 10-vote margin. After eight years as mayor, Sanders ran a credible campaign for an open seat in the U.S. House in 1988, finishing second to Republican Peter Smith. Sanders came back to defeat Smith in 1990, and served 16 years in the U.S. House, before being elected to an open seat in the U.S. Senate in 2006. With 25 years of congressional service, Sanders is by far the longest-tenured independent ever to serve in the United States Congress.
In the policy part of his speech, Sanders emphasized the rise of income inequality in the United States, with the consequent squeeze on middle-class living standards. Sanders argued that, although inequality has accelerated in the years since the Great Recession, the trend toward an increasing share of income and wealth being concentrated among a very small number of households began in the 1990s. Although Sanders did not make this point, the 1990s were, of course, the time when Bill and Hillary Clinton were last in the White House.
Sanders claimed that the combination of income inequality and the dependence of congressional and presidential candidates on campaign contributions from corporations and wealthy interests is a threat not just to the American dream of rising living standards for all, but also to American democracy itself. In Sanders’ view, the mainstream media is complicit in these trends, because of the dependence of much of the media on corporate advertising, and the decline in investigative reporting resulting from a cutback in news budgets in recent years.
Sanders said that if he runs for president, it will be as a Democrat in the primaries and caucuses, not as an independent in the general election. He does not want to be known as a spoiler who facilitated the election of a right-wing Republican president.
Sanders’ making peace with the Democratic Party in this way represents a major change from his early career. His first years as mayor were marked by conflicts between Burlington Progressives and Democrats, and Vermont Democrats attempted to prevent him from being elected to Congress in the first place.
I hope that Sanders enters the 2016 presidential campaign. He is most unlikely to win, but his presence on the debate stage in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire will make Hillary Clinton a stronger candidate.
Clinton needs to develop a response to Sanders’ claims about income inequality and corporate influence in the American political system, especially considering the great wealth the Clintons have accumulated since leaving the White House and their dependence on six- and seven-figure speech fees from corporations and affluent individuals. Clinton also needs to respond to the arguments for a realistic and restrained foreign policy that will be made not just by Sanders, but also by former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, another potential Democratic presidential candidate.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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