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December 01, 2013 1:52 PM Bernie Sanders for president?

By Kathleen Geier

Today’s Washington Post has an article about growing economic populism within the Democratic Party. It can be felt in everything from the movement to increase Social Security benefits, rather than reduce them (as the Obama administration had been willing to do until recently), to drives to increase the minimum wage and enact tougher financial regulations.

We’ve seen several variations of this story recently — for example, there was Peter Beinart’s Daily Beast piece about the millennial generation, and Noam Schieber’s Elizabeth Warren profile in The New Republic. As always, this genre of article eventually ends up being a story about the 2016 presidential campaign. I’ve written before about my frustration with the media’s, and sometimes my fellow progressives’, obsession over presidential politics at the expense of the grassroots. The presidency is generally the very last place where you will see progressive change.

That said, there were two factoids in the article that were particularly striking. One is the outspoken criticism of Larry Mishel of Hillary Clinton. Mishel is a progressive economist who heads the Economic Policy Institute. I wouldn’t expect the leader of a mainstream liberal organization to be openly expressing unhappiness at the prospect of a Clinton campaign — at least not this early. There may be more discontent with Hillary amongst the base than a lot of people realize. Here’s what Mishel said:

“I personally have Clinton fatigue, noting that it was a Clinton team that has been running Obama’s economics,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute. “A Clinton administration seems like a continuation of the same team.”

The second thing that surprised me is this: Bernie Sanders is clearly saying that if Elizabeth Warren doesn’t jump into the 2016 Democratic primary, he will. Here’s what he told the reporter:

Another potential source of pressure building on the left is Sen. Bernard Sanders (Vt.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats. He has said he might run for president if no liberal he considers adequate steps up.
Although his chances would be slim at best, he could serve as an agitator who pulled other candidates to the left — or as a potential spoiler if his campaign got off the ground.
“I don’t wake up every morning saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I really want to be president,’ ” Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, said in an interview. “But somebody’s got to be out there, and if nobody is, I’ll do it.”

That definitely sounds like he’ll run if Elizabeth Warren or another progressive — Sherrod Brown, maybe? — doesn’t. Sanders is now 72, a little old to be running for president, but no one expects him to win. The point would be to inject some important ideas into the national conversation and to pull Hillary politically to the left.

In the past, I’ve expressed skepticism as to whether this gambit actually succeeds. Did Dennis Kucinich pull Obama or Kerry to the left? Did Jesse Jackson do the same for Mondale or Dukakis? I’d like to see what political science research says about the phenomenon. Sanders or Warren might not be comparable to Kucinich or Jackson, however, because as senators, they have more mainstream respectability, and thus (maybe) more clout.

At this point, Elizabeth Warren is sounding genuinely reluctant to challenge Hillary. Yet a challenger would be a healthy thing for Hillary, and the party. Hillary Clinton hasn’t run for office since the 2008 primary, so a strong challenger would sharpen her political skills. Also, if a challenger to her left forced her cut her ties to the investment banker-type economic advisers who have had a stranglehold on economic policy during the last two Democratic presidential administrations, that would be a wonderful thing.

Besides, Bernie’s a lively, outspoken guy who would be fun. He’d be sure to add some excitement to what might otherwise become a tedious coronation. What do he, and the party, have to lose?

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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