With the official entry of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont into the 2016 presidential race comes an atypical challenger for Hillary Clinton. Unlike traditional presidential aspirants, Sanders opened his campaign by sharpening his rhetoric rather than trying to dull it down. While this may mean Clinton will not have to worry about being outflanked by Sanders for the so-called (and largely illusory) “center,” it certainly means that Clinton’s alignment with Wall Street and Corporate America is going to prove problematic in the Democratic primary given her record.
This is something, reportedly, that Team Clinton is well aware of. It would not be at all surprising that Hillary Clinton and her supporters fear a contest of ideas – the neoliberal ideology she and her husband are closely associated with is very unpopular both with the general public and most members of the Democratic Party in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Hillary Clinton knows this all too well and has been trying to distance herself from her own recent past including her husband’s presidency. Unfortunately for her, the shift looks too opportunistic and does little to neutralize the clear contrasts a Senator Sanders candidacy draws.
Insiders familiar with the Clinton campaign’s thinking described it as “frightened” of Sanders — not that he would win the nomination, but that he could damage her with the activist base by challenging her on core progressive positions in debates and make her look like a centrist or corporatist. The source described the campaign as “pleased,” at least, that O’Malley and Sanders will split the anti-Clinton vote. A Clinton spokesman declined to comment.
At his kickoff rally in Burlington, Vermont, on Tuesday, where thousands turned out to support him, Sanders vowed to “break up the largest financial institutions in the country” and provided the kinds of specifics Clinton has yet to color in. Sanders called for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. (Clinton has said she supports raising the minimum wage but has yet to say by how much.) Sanders also supports a single-payer health insurance system, expanding Social Security benefits, free tuition at public universities and universal pre-kindergarten.
Hillary Clinton is not only not illuminating her 2016 campaign platform, she is avoiding the press as best she can. Part of that is due to a few ongoing scandals concerning deleted emails and the corruption at the Clinton Foundation, but another aspect is surely due to worries over exactly what her positions should be. Crafting a poll-driven message is difficult in a country with such volatile politics, especially given that Clinton is going to be raising money from the very millionaires and billionaires her party’s base wants taxed and regulated.
Those donors, of course, will want something in return should Clinton become president. So maybe the real issue is not whether Sanders will make Hillary Clinton look like a corporatist, but whether she will govern like one if elected.