Just how left-wing is Bernie Sanders?

Bernie Sanders rails against billionaires, wants to break up the six largest banks, and thinks that Obamacare didn't go far enough. But he's also an established dealmaker and relevant on Capitol Hill. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont holds a news conference after he announced his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

To some Democrats, being called “left wing” is an epithet. But to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the self-described democratic socialist now running for the “big-D” Democratic presidential nomination, it’s a badge of honor.

Senator Sanders supports a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system, sometimes called “Medicare for all.” He wants to break up America’s six largest banks. He urges deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions through strict regulation. And he wants to get money out of politics.

“We can’t continue having a nation in which we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major nation on Earth, at the same time as we’re seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires,” Sanders said in his announcement speech on Capitol Hill Thursday. “So, that’s the major issue.”

While there’s no doubt that the rumpled, outspoken Sanders is a leftie, in many ways he’s not so out there as to be irrelevant in the American political context – and in the corridors of power. Since Sanders’s first election to Congress in 1990, as an Independent, Democrats have welcomed him as a member of their caucus. For two years, he chaired the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee until Democrats lost the majority, and is now “ranking member” – occupying the top minority seat – on the Senate Banking Committee.  

Sanders has also proved to be an effective political player. According to his profile in National Journal, senators have confided to Democrat Patrick Leahy, Vermont’s senior senator, “what a pleasant surprise [Sanders] has turned out to be” in his willingness to forge legislative deals.

By more than one scoring system, Sanders is not even the most liberal member of the Senate.

The Silicon Valley tech startup Crowdpac, which analyzes political data, ranks Sanders as only the second most liberal senator, after Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) of Wisconsin. 

Last year, National Journal ranked Sanders as only the 37th most liberal senator for 2013, though that result no doubt says more about the ranking system than about Sanders’s politics.  

More relevant is how Sanders stacks up against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner (by a mile) for the Democratic nomination. In the Crowdpac analysis, Sanders is more liberal than Mrs. Clinton on 14 out of 15 major issues. The two issues on which the gap is greatest are banking and defense/foreign policy.  

Sanders and Clinton differ in another way: More than 60 percent of his campaign contributions come in small-dollar amounts – between $1 and $199 – compared with only 10 percent of Clinton’s, according to Crowdpac. It considered donations from 1980 to the present.

Sanders backs President Obama on some issues but not others. Both men opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Clinton voted to authorize; Sanders remains opposed to foreign military intervention, while Obama’s record in office is mixed. Sanders supports US sanctions against Russia over its meddling in Ukraine, and Obama’s negotiations aimed at preventing Iranian nuclear weapons capability.  

Like Obama, Sanders is a liberal on social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, and supports the president’s executive actions on immigration. Sanders opposes the Patriot Act and its reauthorization, and parts company with Obama on NSA surveillance, slamming “out-of-control intelligence agencies.”

On the economy, like Obama, Sanders favors more investment in infrastructure and a higher minimum wage. But on international trade, he and Obama are polar opposites – as the president is with most Democrats. Sanders calls Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with Pacific Rim nations, “a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment, and the foundations of American democracy.”

The National Journal profile of Sanders describes a classic child of the '60s. Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a Jewish paint salesman who had immigrated from Poland. At the University of Chicago, Sanders got involved in “radical leftist politics,” and moved to Vermont, where he worked as a carpenter. Soon he got into politics, where he ran for the US Senate as a candidate of the socialist Liberty Union Party and got just 2 percent of the vote.

After several more tries at political office, Sanders finally succeeded in 1981, becoming mayor of Burlington – Vermont’s largest city (population 42,000 in 2010) – by just 10 votes. Suddenly, T-shirts proclaiming the “People’s Republic of Burlington” were all the rage.

Two years ago, Sanders wrote of the weekend he spent in Vermont with the Danish ambassador to the United States, holding town halls around the state.

“Large crowds came out to learn about a social system very different from our own which provides extraordinary security and opportunity for the people of Denmark,” Sanders wrote in a Huffington Post column headlined, “What can we learn from Denmark?”

Today, Sanders is the longest-serving Independent in congressional history. He is running for the Democratic nomination, he says, because gaining access to the ballot in all 50 states is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. He also wants to take part in the Democratic primary debates.

His path to the Democratic presidential nomination is impossibly steep, but in his campaign announcement Thursday, he said, "We’re in this race to win."

As only the second candidate to declare for the Democratic nomination, after the more centrist Clinton, Sanders certainly has some running room.

Liberal activists welcomed Sanders into the race.

“MoveOn members have cheered on Sen. Sanders for years as he's stood up to the Wall Street banks and wealthy interests who have rigged the game in Washington and knee-capped our country’s middle-class and working families,” said Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, in a statement. 

Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz also welcomed Sanders and the contributions he and the other candidates will make to “a healthy dialogue about the future of our party and our nation.” 

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