Bernie Sanders Joins 2016 Field -- as a Democrat
As Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday announced a bid for president, he made official another momentous political decision: That he will seek higher office as a Democrat.
Standing in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, the Vermont Independent and self-described “socialist” announced that he will run for the Oval Office to confront the “serious questions” of money in politics, wage inequality, and climate change.
“The major issue is, how do we create an economy that works for all of our people, rather than a small number of billionaires?” Sanders said.
Democrats quickly voiced their support for the two-term senator in light of his campaign launch.
“I agree with Bernie,” tweeted Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and prohibitive favorite to win the nomination. “Focus must be on helping America's middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement: “Throughout his service in the U.S. House and Senate, Bernie Sanders has clearly demonstrated his commitment to the values we all share as members of the Democratic Party.”
But, until Thursday, Sanders has not ever been a Democrat in name, and he has been proud of that distinction. Since Sanders first ran for federal office in 1972, he has identified as a third-party or unaffiliated candidate.
In his first bid for Senate, Sanders ran under the Liberty Union banner. When he successfully ran for Burlington mayor a decade later, he identified with the Progressive Party, which he launched in Vermont with that race. Since 1988, when Sanders unsuccessfully sought a seat in the House of Representatives, he has run as an Independent.
His political affiliation has at times caused confusion. When a C-SPAN host incorrectly identified Sanders as a member of the “Socialist Progressive Coalition Party” during a 1989 interview, the interviewee corrected him — although Sanders does consider himself a socialist.
Indeed, Sanders has worn his unique political status as a badge of honor, and has over the years been a tireless spokesman for the merits of a third political party in the U.S. On Jan. 3, 1989, he took that message to the pages of The New York Times with an op-ed: “This Country Needs a Third Party.”
“Basically it said, Democrats and Republicans are not dealing with the real issues facing working people,” Sanders told C-SPAN, adding that “letters came in by the dozens and dozens and dozens” to thank him for the piece. “What that response said to me is that there is out there throughout this country … a tremendous disenchantment with status quo politics. And my hope is we’re going to go beyond the Democrats and Republicans.”
Yet, in his first bid for president, Sanders will conform to the very two-party system that has so frustrated him over the years.
Kelly Mangan, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, which owes its existence to Sanders, said Thursday that his decision has not hampered her party’s opinion of him or his work: “Regardless of the letter behind his name, Bernie will do what he has always done: fight to save the middle class, stand up for working families, protect our seniors, take care of our veterans, and undermine the billionaires and corporations seeking to buy up our government and democracy.”
In an interview last year with The Nation, Sanders explained his thought process in deciding whether to run for president as a Democrat:
“The dilemma is that, if you run outside of the Democratic Party … you’re not just running a race for president, you’re really running to build an entire political movement. In doing that, you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected—the [Ralph] Nader dilemma.
“The bolder, more radical approach is obviously running outside of the two-party system,” he added. “Do people believe at this particular point that there is the capability of starting a third-party movement? Or is that an idea that is simply not realistic at this particular moment in history?”
The answer Sanders reached appears to be no.
Part of the calculus is that Sanders is not keen to derail Clinton in the general election, although they do disagree on some important policy prescriptions. As the newly minted candidate took questions from reporters after his announcement, he named a few topics for debate, including support for the Iraq War, and he vowed not to pull punches in presenting contrasts to voters.
But Sanders emphasized that he has little patience for political campaigns that focus on personality over policy.
“I believe that, in a democracy, what elections are about are serious debates over serious issues, not political gossip, not making campaigns into soap operas,” Sanders said.
“This is not the Red Sox versus the Yankees,” he added. “This is the debate over major issues facing the American people."
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native enjoys more latitude to run a high-minded campaign for president because he is unlikely to win. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Sanders with less than 6 percent among Democrats nationally, while Clinton leads with more than 62 percent.
When asked Thursday whether he is in the race to frame the debate, however, Sanders insisted, “We’re in this race to win. I ask people to understand my history. You’re looking at a guy, indisputably, who has the most unusual political history of anybody in the United States Congress.
“If you raise the issues that are in the hearts and minds of the American people,” he added, “if you put together a movement that says, we’ve got to stand together as a people and say that this capitol, this beautiful capitol, our country belong to all of us and not the billionaire class, that’s not just raising the issue, that’s winning elections.”