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Bernie Sanders: Can Vermont's favorite uncle catch on outside the state? (+video)

Bernie Sanders will be hard-pressed to match the Clinton fundraising machine, but the race will give him a platform to air long-held convictions that income inequality is both immoral and unsustainable.

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In the wake of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s announcement last week that he will challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, I have been repeatedly asked the same question: “Why?”

To which I respond, “Why not?”

Yes, I understand that Bernie’s not going to win the Democratic nomination. Even his fellow Vermonters, who have supported Bernie in increasingly greater numbers through a succession of electoral contests dating back more than three decades, are expressing skepticism regarding his chances for national office.  Part of Bernie’s problem is that the very factors that make him so popular in Vermont– he won reelection to the US Senate with more than 70% of the vote two years ago – may not help him as much nationally. We Vermonters are used to seeing Bernie, shoulders hunched, white hair askew, marching grim-faced through our town in the annual Memorial Day parade or holding court in the local diner. He is our eccentric relative, the grumpy uncle who bends your ear every holiday picnic railing in his distinctive Brooklyn accent against the corporations and the 1 percent, oblivious to the mustard smeared on his rumpled shirt. “That’s our Uncle Bernie,” we say, smiling, before reaching for the potato salad. “It wouldn’t be a real holiday without him.”

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But it’s not entirely clear that a nationwide audience will find his eccentricities so endearing. Running for the Democratic presidential nomination, with the intense media spotlight and a much more diverse group of primary voters, is not the same as greeting voters at the annual Addison County fair. Through the years Vermonters have adapted to – even come to love – Bernie’s curmudgeonly personality, but it is not entirely clear how well his rumpled but lovable Uncle Bernie schtick will play on the national stage. Nor does Vermont provide much in the way of a political base from which to launch a national campaign.

But his problems run deeper than his prickly personality and small-state base. For starters, Bernie’s trade-mark “democratic socialism” likely does not have a very big constituency within the Democratic Party. The last Vermonter to undertake a similarly long-shot quest for the Democratic nomination was former Gov. Howard Dean (D) in 2004. He also sought to position himself as the progressive alternative to the establishment candidates (notwithstanding a rather moderate record as governor in Vermont). Despite an impressive early fundraising campaign and some initially positive media coverage, fueled by polls that for a time put him ahead of the Democratic field, Dean never attracted much more than 25 percent of the Democratic vote, and his candidacy was essentially dead after the Iowa caucus. (Contrary to myth, Dean’s celebrated “I have a scream” speech merely confirmed his political death – it did not cause it.) Bernie, with his soak-the-rich explicitly class-based pitch, is not likely to expand Dean’s coalition.

Sanders’s strategists undoubtedly hope that if he does well during the early caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, which typically attract more activist, ideologically-liberal delegates, as well as garnering some favorite-son support in neighboring New Hampshire, the media might anoint him as a viable alternative to Hillary. That, in turn, could enable him to bring in the money he will need to stay in the race for the long haul. It is true that the media loves a horse race, and is not averse to fabricating one if none exists. Still, if Hillary shows signs of faltering, it’s hard to believe the Democratic Party will allow a 73-year-old former Socialist mayor of Burlington to be their standard bearer in 2016. Bernie will also be hard-pressed to match the Clinton money machine. Dean gained early attention in 2004 for his ability to bring in money online, and he ended up raising more than $50 million, much of it in small donations, in his presidential bid. Bernie is going to need at least that much just to remain competitive coming out of the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary. However, although he had a very successful first day of fundraising, it is not clear that relying only on small donors, as he claims he will do, is a viable strategy. He may also need a Sheldon Adelson-type sugar daddy if he hopes to compete past the South Carolina primary marking the end of the first month of the nominating campaign.

None of this paints a very optimistic picture for Bernie’s chances. So why run? I can think of several reasons. First, as former Gov. James Douglas (R) noted when I asked him about the psychology that might drive someone like Bernie to undertake such a quixotic endeavor, “Bernie is a man of strong convictions.” Running for president will give him a very visible platform for airing those convictions. Chief among them is his belief that the growing income inequality between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is both immoral and unsustainable. His strategy will be to paint Hillary as in hock to Wall Street and big money, and thus unable to truly fight for the middle class, whereas he has been fighting on their behalf for three decades. At the very least, he hopes his candidacy will force Hillary to move the left on economic issues. (It is, of course, also possible that this strategy might instead strengthen Hillary’s appeal by making her appear more moderate.)

Of course, there are more self-interested reasons as well. Bernie already appears for an hour every week on progressive Thom Hartmann’s call-in radio show, and he has likely taken note of how former presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee have parlayed a failed nomination bid into a successful career as a well-paid talking head. Moreover, with more than two years to go before his next Senate election, it’s a low-risk time for Bernie to run for president. If he loses, he can always return to the Senate.

Finally, we shouldn’t discount the ego factor. Douglas likes to recount a story former Vermont Governor Dick Snelling told him regarding how easy it is to succumb to the blandishments of acquaintances urging you to run for higher office. “Twenty of your friends will tell you that you should be governor, that you can do that job as well as anyone else, and you begin to believe it. But these are your friends telling you this!” No doubt Bernie has his supporters who truly believe that he would make a great president, and have told him as much. And he may believe them. So why not run if he believes he could do the job?

More than the general election, presidential nominating contests are difficult to predict, especially this far out. Who really knows what will happen next year? Maybe there’s a smoking e-mail waiting to be uncovered that will drive Hillary from the race! In any case, this isn’t the first time Bernie took a chance on making a fool of himself. In 1987, while serving as Burlington’s mayor, Bernie recorded an album of folk classics. Unfortunately, as Tom Lockwood – the musician who came up with the idea for Bernie to cut a record – recalled, “As talented of a guy as he is, he has absolutely not one musical bone in his body, and that became painfully obvious from the get-go…. This is a guy who couldn’t even tap his foot to music coming over the radio. No sense of melody. No sense of rhythm – the rhythm part surprised me, because he has good rhythm when he’s delivering a speech in public.”

Harsh words! But you be the judge. We all know "This Land Was Made for You and Me" – but was it made for Bernie too?  We are about to find out ... in the meantime, sing it Bernie!

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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