Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

Sanders is the primary challenger Democrats need

He is everything Hillary Clinton is pretending to be

April 29, 2015 11:00AM ET

Hillary Clinton’s campaign knows voters want an economic populist candidate. During her recent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire (in a van nicknamed Scooby) her rhetoric has focused on how little millionaires and hedge fund managers pay in taxes and how “the deck is stacked” in favor of the wealthy.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine, who has covered his fair share of presidential politics, called it “fake populism,” and he’s right: Clinton is campaigning on the same focus-group-tested promises to repeal unjust tax loopholes that she and Barack Obama ran on in 2008. Those loopholes are still there and will likely remain if Clinton’s Wall Street donors get her into the White House.

There is one candidate, though, who has always championed populist causes and is a hit with supporters who are hip to the difference between a politician stumping for votes and a true advocate for working people. That candidate is Bernie Sanders.

The junior U.S. senator from Vermont, Sanders will officially announce his candidacy on Thursday. He draws large crowds for each visit to New Hampshire, the nation’s first and arguably the most influential of the presidential primaries. Last weekend in Hanover, New Hampshire, he was applauded for his promises to push for a $15 hourly minimum wage and introduce legislation that would make public colleges and universities tuition-free and for his bill to invest $1 trillion for infrastructure improvements across the U.S. — which he estimates would create 13 million jobs. Sanders has spoken of breaking up the biggest Wall Street banks, six of which control almost $10 trillion in assets and hold almost half the mortgages and credit card debt in the nation. Sanders’ policies make him a much stronger advocate for working people than Clinton. That said, even Sanders’ most ardent supporters don’t have much hope for his success. Darrell Hotchkiss, who hosted a house party for Sanders in Hanover, told CNN, “He isn’t going to get the nomination … We all know that.”

A Sanders candidacy, even if it’s a long shot, may draw enough support, particularly in New Hampshire, to scare Hillary Clinton into adopting some of his platform as her own and set the tone for the rest of the Democratic primary.  

‘Psychiatric issues’

Sanders’ platform of correcting the imbalance between the ultrarich and ordinary people is impressive, and not just when it’s compared with those of Clinton and other servants of Wall Street. Recently, he called it “unacceptable” that in an era of unprecedented new technology, Americans are working longer hours for lower wages while multinational corporations and the wealthiest families “are doing phenomenally well.” He pointed out that from 2013 to 2015, the 14 richest Americans increased their wealth by $157 billion and that the Waltons of the Walmart fortune own more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of Americans. He called the greed of the wealthiest families in America “a psychiatric issue” and compared their desire to accumulate more wealth to drug and alcohol addicts who “always want more.” (And since we’re on the subject of crippling wealth addiction, if anyone from the Clinton family wants my help organizing an intervention for Bill and Hillary, my phone is always on.)

Hillary Clinton’s populism, by contrast, pushed her to give two speeches to financial giant Goldman Sachs in 2013, which paid her $200,000 per gig. In one of the speeches, which were closed to the press, Clinton allegedly called bipartisan criticism of Wall Street “unproductive” and “foolish.” Clinton’s donors on Wall Street recently expressed a quiet understanding that her populist campaign rhetoric was just politics and that she’s just saying what voters want to hear.

If Bernie Sanders were to defy the odds and win the nomination, it would be a historic victory for working people across America.

In the forthcoming book “Clinton Cash,” author Peter Schweizer shows how foreign donations to Clinton’s family foundation coincided with major U.S. policy rollouts. One of the more controversial donations came from a Canadian bank, which made $1 million in payments to former President Bill Clinton while the Keystone XL pipeline — in which the bank owned a significant stake — was being evaluated by the U.S. State Department while Hillary Clinton was secretary.

A deeper look into Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaign finance records makes clear which politician is more committed to populist causes. According to OpenSecrets.org, her top campaign donors throughout her political career include Citigroup ($782,327), Goldman Sachs ($711,490), JPMorgan Chase ($620,919) and Morgan Stanley ($543,065). By contrast, Bernie Sanders’ top donors are all unions representing working people like teachers, public employees and postal workers. His top donor, the Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union, has given only $95,000 throughout his 17-year political career.

Sanders has never solicited nor accepted any corporate money and says he’ll keep that promise if he runs for president. Granted, presidential races are outrageously expensive, and most politicians don’t hesitate to break a promise if they think it will secure a victory. But Sanders, the longest-serving independent member of Congress, is popular with left-leaning voters precisely because of his rebuke of corporate money dominating politics.

His campaign announcement may cause bigger waves — or at least ripples — than expected. A recent poll found that among potential Democratic candidates, 49 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they supported Clinton, 20 percent favored Sen. Elizabeth Warren and 12 percent chose Sanders. The rest of the potential field, from Vice President Joe Biden to former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have just single-digit support. But Warren — a favorite of the economic populist left — has repeatedly insisted she’s not running for president and hasn’t made or scheduled any trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, which all other serious candidates have done by now. Once left-leaning voters accept Warren’s decision not to run, it isn’t inconceivable for her supporters to move into Sanders’ camp. That could boost him to almost a third of the support from likely Democratic primary voters in addition to potential support from voters who support Biden, O’Malley and former Virginia U.S. Sen. Jim Webb. If Sanders’ message of economic populism wins over New Hampshire Democrats, he has a chance of launching a viable and much needed challenge to Clinton.

For the most part, the punditry has written off Sanders as a serious candidate, based on the cooler-heads-prevail Beltway wisdom that any candidate who so aggressively takes on the financial and corporate elite will fail to pick up mainstream voters. Though as Taibbi has said, this is the same conventional Beltway wisdom that applauds Democrats who talk populism to win the election but govern through the same system of backdoor transactions with money and power brokers that has corrupted the American political process to this point. If Sanders were to defy the odds and win the nomination with his truly populist platform that directly challenges this system, it would be a historic victory for working people across America. 

C. Robert Gibson is the editor-in-chief of US Uncut, a new social-justice-oriented media company covering economic, racial and environmental news. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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