Let’s hear it for Bennie Sanders, who is running for president! Wait, what’s that? His name is BERNIE Sanders? Sorry. But either way, you’ve probably never heard of him.
All we really need to know is that he’s one of two guys who are running as an alternative to Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. The other is former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Sanders is not a “former” at all; he’s a U.S. senator from Vermont.
He’s also not really a Democrat, although he caucuses with them in the Senate. For most of his political life, he’s been listed as a socialist, which is just fine with the people in Vermont, variously described as “quirky” or “tree-hugging leftists.” Sanders, who looks like an orchestra conductor who has touched an electrical device, is 73 years old at the moment, compared with Hillary’s 67. So, age will not be an issue between them; although O’Malley, at 52, certainly will be hammering away at it.
But it’s Sanders who will be campaigning from the left and dragging Hillary Clinton in that direction whenever the polls show her people that it’s probably a good idea to tack left. Sanders will argue that his proudly ultraliberal policies are lifelong principles for him, and he certainly was showing no hesitation when he officially declared his candidacy: “Today we begin a political revolution to transform our country, economically, politically, socially and environmentally.” His agenda included raising taxes for the rich, breaking up the mega banks, a single-payer health system and free public-college tuition.
If those ideas all sound familiar, we’ve been hearing them from Elizabeth Warren, the senator from down-the-New-England-road Massachusetts, who insists she’s not going to run. So it’s Bennie, uh, Bernie who’s off to the races, trying to tap into the Democrats’ progressive roots and provide a candidate for those in the party who think that Hillary Clinton is just too cozy with the plutocrat bad guys — or the ones who are concerned she doesn’t rate high in the honesty sweepstakes.
Never mind that Sanders trails Hillary in the polls by about 50 points. He relishes the underdog role. After all, he thunders, he overcame conventional thinking in Vermont, finally becoming one of the state’s U.S. senators. And while the Green Mountain State is not like much of the country, it does have a lot of similarities to the white mountain state, where the first primary will be held. In New Hampshire, polls show that 18 percent of Democratic voters support Sanders already and that he has a chance to win more of them over as he wages his campaign of disgust at the excesses of the few at the top of our economic dung heap.
So let’s gin up some pity for Hillary. She’s going to get abuse from the right, where Republican candidates have one thing in common: They’re dumping all over her — actually, make that two things in common, since they are doing the same with President Barack Obama. But he’s heading out while she’s trying to waltz in, and now she’ll also have to deal with potshots from the left flank in the person of Bernie Sanders, to say nothing of O’Malley.
What’s terrific about Sanders is that if someone in central casting were looking for the stereotypical candidate, he wouldn’t look the part. Also, he’s definitely not a glad-hander. Polished, he’s not. But let’s face it, slick politicians have combined with slick corporate leaders to slide this country into the ground.
Sanders is banking on the hope that Americans are tired of the neatly packaged, 8-by-10 glossy automatons who run their market-researched campaigns, pandering to the voters’ ignorance and prejudices. He’s running against those who pay to maintain the status quo. The question is whether Sanders can improve his name recognition so he can show he has what it takes and then whether those in power will let him succeed.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.