Updated 11:05 a.m. | When Bernard Sanders declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination , he joined a lengthening roster of gadflies who have run in order to push the party to the left.
So will it matter that he is not now, never has been and does not plan to become an actual Democrat? The Vermont senator’s official objective is to become the first presidential nominee of a major political party who’s officially and steadfastly independent of both major political parties. His much more realistic goal is to do well enough in the debates and run credibly enough in the early contests to give Hillary Rodham Clinton a scare that prompts her to take a more progressive populist tack.
(Assuming Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts sticks with her stated decision to sit out 2016, Sanders is positioned to be the most prominent voice from the left in the Democratic field. He starts with 6 percent support among Democrats, according to the Real Clear Politics average of five national polls conducted in the past month. That’s a shadow of the former secretary of State’s 62 percent — but still a statistical notch above the less-than-2-percent showing from three other potential rivals: former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a former senator and governor.)
Sanders is entering the fray in a posture fundamentally different from his most famous iconoclastic predecessors from the Senate. Eugene McCarthy, who ran to force President Lyndon B. Johnson out in 1968, and fellow Minnesotan Paul Wellstone, who challenged Vice President Al Gore briefly in 2000, both hugged the liberal edge of the American ideological spectrum but made their presidential plays as proud card-carrying Democrats and uncomplaining cogs in the two-party system.
Sanders, in contrast, has spent more than four decades in public life publicly biting the partisan hand he now wants to feed him.
He made his first mark in Vermont politics in the early 1970s as founder of the Liberty Union Party, which argued the Democratic and Republican organizations were equally in the pocket of corporate interests and disinterested in either economic or social justice. In 20 subsequent bids for mayor of Burlington, governor and Congress, Sanders never once sought the Democratic nomination — and he actually turned it down the one time he received it anyway, when he first ran for the Senate in 2006.
Sanders won his first election in 1981, ousting the Democratic mayor of the state's largest city after giving up the third-party label and running as an independent. Only since arriving in Washington a decade later did he begin cultivating the slightly standoffish relationship of mutual convenience with the Democrats that lasts to this day.
Party leaders back home have effectively gotten out of his way ever since he outperformed their 1988 nominee and almost won the state’s solitary House seat. But after winning on his second try, Sanders’ relationship with congressional Democrats got off to a rocky start. Describing himself as a socialist was so off-putting to conservative Democrats (who held much more sway then than now) they initially blocked his application for admission to the House Democratic Caucus. And it took several years before he was permitted to begin advancing in seniority above “actual” Democrats who arrived after he did.
During his 16 years in the House, Sanders’ verbal combustibility and lone-wolf approach isolated him as often as not. He’s been less marginalized in the Senate, where the Democrats have allowed him to be chairman of several subcommittees as well as their new ranking member on Budget this year. And, although his proposals and rhetoric continue to test the party’s limits on the left, his partisan loyalty and presidential support voting records have stayed within the Democratic mainstream.
Along the way, Sanders, 73, has set a record as the longest-serving independent in congressional history. And he continues to keep a plaque on his office wall honoring Eugene V. Debs, the founder and five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.
Tad Devine, the veteran Democratic consultant who will be directing the presidential campaign, says Sanders is planning no overt steps designed to limit ambiguity about his partisan home — such as formalizing his caucus affiliation in the Senate — because he’s not worried the electorate is confused.
“Clearly, he’s supportive in general of the central priorities, principles and agenda of the Democratic Party, and our view is that’s what's required of the presidential nominee,” Devine told CQ Roll Call. “At the same time, he was elected in Vermont as an independent and he feels obligated to serve in the Senate that way.”
The state does not enroll voters by party, so registering as a Democrat isn’t even an option. Sanders has checked the "Democrat" box next to "party affiliation" on the Federal Election Commission papers formalizing his presidential bid, Devine said, and he'll do so again in states that require such declarations as a condition of caucus or primary ballet access.
But what about avoiding the matter altogether, by staying true to his electoral history and running as a Party of One from now until November 2016?
Out of the question. “Unless you have billions of dollars, campaigning for president as an independent is not a realistic alternative,” Devine said. The longtime consultant acknowledged that national grass-roots network aside, the best Sanders could hope for would be a spoiler role that might lead to the worst possible outcome — the election of a Republican.
The populist, in other words, is launching his presidential quest as a pragmatist.
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