From their lips to God’s ears. It’s a great scenario, except for one of several factors: She might decide not to run. Republicans might coalesce behind a formidable candidate. One or more leading Democrats might just decide to skip the early coronation and challenge her in the primary.
“I don’t wake up every morning feeling I have to be president of the United States,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told me in his Senate office in early March. “But at a time when the country faces greater problems than any time since the Great Depression,” he continued, “it’s critical that the most important issues facing this country be brought before the American people.”
The way American politics is structured today, Sanders pointed out, the only way to highlight those issues, and force the media to talk about them, is through the heat of a presidential campaign. He noted that the middle class is disappearing, income inequality is worse than ever before, the real unemployment rate is closer to 13 percent and the lack of action on climate change threatens the economic and environmental health of our grandchildren. Republicans won’t even acknowledge these problems, Sanders argued. Neither, he fears — without mentioning Clinton by name — will any mainstream Democratic candidate.
Then the senator from Vermont dropped his bombshell: “If nobody else is willing to raise these fundamental issues, I am prepared to run for president.” The key word, he stressed, was “prepared.” He hasn’t made a decision, he’s well aware of the obstacles in his path, he knows it’s a long shot at best — but he sure is seriously thinking about it.
The very prospect of a Sanders candidacy is enough to make serious progressives downright giddy. It even earned a cover story by John Nichols in The Nation magazine. By far the most liberal member of the Senate, Sanders is the strongest defender of Social Security and Medicare. He’s helped lead the fight to raise the minimum wage and extend unemployment benefits. He opposed the war in Iraq and was one of the most outspoken critics of the war in Afghanistan. He authored an amendment to the Affordable Care Act giving states the right to adopt a single-payer health plan. He was one of the first liberals to speak out against the Obama administration’s expanded use of drones and the NSA’s massive collection of domestic phone records. Climate change? Income inequality? Living wage? Gay rights? You name the progressive issue, Sanders is leading the charge. More so than any other Democrat.
But that’s a problem, of course. Sanders is not a Democrat. Even though he caucuses, and votes, with Senate Democrats, he’s still a registered Independent, so one of his first decisions is whether to run as an Independent or as a Democrat. He sees advantages and disadvantages to both. As an Independent, there is the advantage of a growing dissatisfaction among the electorate with the two-party system, but the disadvantage of having to build an organization in all 50 states and getting cut out of debates. As a Democrat, there is the advantage of being in the hunt, but the disadvantage of being vastly overshadowed and outspent by Hillary Clinton.
Closing our interview, there were two points the senator stressed. One, he has no animosity toward Hillary Clinton. He’s worked with her as first lady, New York senator and secretary of state. He likes her, and he believes she’d make a good president. But he sees her as a different kind of Democrat: a centrist, like Barack Obama, who would continue the policies of the Obama administration, when he thinks the times call for a new, more progressive approach — in the style of Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren.
Second point: Sanders insists he will never be another Ralph Nader. “I know the danger,” he told me. “I will never create a situation which might help a Republican become president.”
For now, Bernie Sanders, like Hillary Clinton, is focused on helping Democrats maintain control of the Senate in 2014. But both also have their eyes on the future. Suddenly 2016 looks like it might be livelier than we thought.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.