No one ever mistakes Bernie Sanders for Mr. Sunshine.
The longest-serving independent member in congressional history and self-avowed socialist sees America on the brink of oligarchy – and he’s testing whether such a bleak message of alarm warrants the necessity of a presidential campaign.
In a funereal speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Monday, the junior senator from Vermont warned about a middle class in decline, a “grotesque” wage gap and a government of, by and for the billionaire class. He argued the actual unemployment rate is twice the size of the 5.7 percent plastered prominently in newspapers. He claimed the U.S. boasts the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth. He noted a boiling resentment bubbling through the veins of the country and spanning the full political spectrum, from progressives to tea party conservatives.
“They have every right in the world to be angry,” he said.
Sanders is angry, too – and if he were to run for the White House, likely as a Democrat, he would attempt to channel that populist acrimony into a movement that could become an uncomfortable agitator for Hillary Clinton, the party’s indisputable and inherently centrist front-runner.
But the 73-year-old Sanders isn’t even sure if it can be done, or if he’ll try.
In a candid answer to a question about his political viability Monday, he lamented the “absurd” amount of resources he would need to mount a serious campaign, both in the primary and general elections.
Even if he raised $100 from 2 million people – for a total of $200 million – he worried it wouldn’t be enough.
“That is 20 percent of what the Koch brothers themselves are prepared to spend. Can you take that on? I don’t know the answer. Maybe the game is over. Maybe they have bought the United States government. Maybe there is no turning back. Maybe we’ve gone over the edge. I don’t know. I surely hope not. But we have to look at that reality.”
David and Charles Koch – the libertarian billionaires commonly referred to as the Koch brothers – reportedly have earmarked nearly $900 million of their personal fortune for the 2016 campaign, on behalf of one or more Republican candidates.
The average contribution to Sanders’ last Senate campaign was $45, he claimed.
“The gut feeling … that I’m going to have to reach is whether there is that willingness to stand up and fight back. And if there’s not, I don’t want to run a futile campaign,” he said.
The tactical admission from Sanders about his own odds must come as a disheartening reality for progressives, who are yearning for a voice in the 2016 process and have spent months attempting to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., into the race. (She has repeatedly and emphatically demurred.)
Even if the left expects Sanders to lose – he trails Clinton by 48 points in the latest New Hampshire primary poll – they still figure he’d fight.
Who else is there to advocate for a $1 trillion stimulus, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and universal health care?
Sanders said if he did run against Clinton, he’d wage a clean campaign that was laser-focused on issues of the middle class, climate change, trade policy, Wall Street and the wisdom of war.
On Monday, he called Clinton an intelligent, serious political figure who cares about issues as deeply as he does.
“It is not my style to trash people. It is not my style to run ugly, negative ads. Never have. Never will,” he said.
But as he inches toward decision time – he has said he’d make up his mind in March – Sanders is clearly burdened by the system he’s spent an entire career railing against.
“I am not Mr. Bloomberg of New York and I don’t have billions of dollars,” he said toward the end of his talk, referring to the former New York City mayor.
But if Sanders – the most ideologically pure liberal in the Senate – determines a campaign for the cause is too arduous, too futile and just not worth it, he’ll only hand liberals more reason to be angry.