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Elections Wed Jun 11 2014
Bernie Sanders is a busy man these days. He's currently chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which has been in the news a lot more than usual. He's also preparing to introduce a constitutional amendment before the Senate which would essentially overturn the infamous Citizens United ruling. And maybe -- just maybe -- he's about to run for president.
In the midst of his whirlwind schedule, Vermont's junior senator made time to visit his alma mater on Saturday. It was alumni weekend, and Bernie Sanders, holder of a bachelor of arts in Political Science from the University of Chicago, was in town for his 50th reunion.
Sanders spoke at the new Institute of Politics to a small group of about 60 people, most of them students. A screen on the wall before the event began stated that the talk would be off-the-record -- clearly a policy of the Institute -- but he didn't say anything which he hasn't said repeatedly while on the record.
The students in the room clearly regarded the senator as something of a noble curiosity, and why shouldn't they? In 1990, Sanders became the first person elected to the US House of Representatives as an Independent in 40 years. In 2006, he resoundingly won election to the Senate, where he is currently one of two Independents, the other Angus King of Maine. The idea that an Independent could be elected at all -- and especially one who self-describes his politics as Democratic Socialist -- would seem to completely violate any logic that political science students (or anyone else) might learn about in the 21st Century.
It is Sanders' unique route to high political office that makes the idea of him running for president so intriguing.
Sanders has an unusual arrangement with the Democrats in the Senate. He caucuses with the Democrats, pledges to vote with the Democrats on procedural matters, and in exchange, is regarded by the Democrats as holding seniority, which has allowed for among other things his appointment to the chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
And yet he is still an Independent. As an Independent, it is hard to imagine that he would run for president as a Democrat. And yet given his relationship with Senate Democrats, it is hard to imagine that he would run for president outside of the Democratic primaries.
In a far-reaching interview published in March, Sanders told John Nichols of The Nation that he was "prepared to run for president." In the same interview he addressed a line of questioning from Nichols about whether he would run as a Democrat or as an independent. Sanders told Nichols that he wants "to hear what progressives have to say" about the matter, and so the debate has been playing out for months.
In a similar interview published in May, Sanders told Joel Bleifuss of In These Times that "it will depend on whether there's an appetite for a strong grassroots progressive campaign" -- and then reiterated that running as a Democrat or as an Independent were both options.
Interestingly, Nichols didn't capitalize the word "independent," but Bleifuss did. The distinction is critical to the debate.
Michael Kazin of The New Republic has championed the idea of Sanders running as a Democrat. Of course, The New Republic is hardly a progressive publication, and Kazin dismisses any other approach to running out of hand. Kazin's argument is also full of powerful clauses like "might actually nudge," which is probably why he refers to himself as "one of the most respected historians of American politics working today."
Largely in response to Kazin, Michael Trudeau of Nation of Change hammers away at why Sanders shouldn't run as a Democrat. Trudeau essentially argues that all past attempts to push the Democratic nominee from the left through the primaries have been worthless. By the time the general election rolls around, the issues brought up by primary losers are long since buried.
In rebutting Kazin, though, Trudeau undersells his argument about what Sanders should do. He brings up what he calls a "leftist coalition" and defines it by referring to "a campaign with existing alternative-party nominations such as the Greens, Vermont Progressive Party, and Socialist Alternative," but that's not how presidential races work.
What Kazin ignores, and Trudeau overlooks, is that Sanders actually has at least three clear and distinct options: run as a Democrat, run as an Independent, or run as a Green.
Here is where the interesting editorial decision of whether or not to capitalize the word "independent" comes into play. Sanders is, and has been, a capital-I Independent throughout his time in Washington. A capital-I Independent is not a member of any political party. Here in Chicago, though, the word "independent" usually is meant to refer to people who are "independent" of "the Machine" -- therefore you get several aldermen who refer to themselves as "independent Democrats."
Often media sources will simply declare there to exist Democrats, Republicans and Independents, with the common implication that Independents are "in the middle." Such a simplistic approach lumps together members of both the Socialist and Constitution Parties as part of one amorphous political bucket. When used so expansively, "independent" tends to be equivalent to "outsider," which in turn means "marginal" -- nevermind the absurdity that people can be "marginal" and "in the middle" at the same time. Personally, I've been a Green for 14 years, and I absolutely do not use the word "independent" -- capital or not -- to describe my political views.
There are many mechanical and practical distinctions between running Green and running Independent. Perhaps most importantly, the Green Party is likely to exit the 2014 elections with about 15 held ballot lines, almost certainly including California, Texas, New York and Florida. An Independent would have to spend perhaps $300,000 just to be on the ballot in the four largest states. Even if Sanders had a very well-organized campaign, $300,000 would be a major up-front expenditure, and that's just for four states.
Another issue is that when you run Independent, there's no party structure ready to go in any state. All of this has to be built from scratch -- all of which consumes an immense amount of resources. States where there is no ongoing Green Party ballot line are often places that simply require re-petitioning every two or four years, and the existing state party there can get it done. If there's no existing structure, though, you have to pay to send people in. The costs add up, and that's before you even get to actual campaigning.
Perhaps the biggest consideration, though, is that when an Independent campaign ends, everything associated with it ends. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran for president as the Green nominee. In the process, his campaign did a great deal to build the party into one of the four largest parties in the United States. Some state ballot lines originally won to allow people to vote for Nader are still held by the Green Party. By contrast, in 2004 and 2008, Nader ran as an Independent. While he actually made it onto more ballot lines in 2008 than he had in 2000, he did so at the likely cost of over a million dollars, and at the end of the 2008 run, there was no structure left to do anything. The 2004 and 2008 runs were ultimately complete wastes of resources.
Technically, Sanders could run under some other party banner. But any other party would be starting off with zero ballot lines and all of the other up-front logistical problems would be the same. Plus, such an approach would likely just serve to split the progressive vote, just as Nader's 2004 and 2008 campaigns did.
As for Michael Trudeau's idea of a "leftist coalition," such a thing would have to be nominal, not formal. Socialist Alternative has done excellent work, electing Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, which in turn led to the recent adoption there of the highest-in-the-country $15 minimum wage. But Socialist Alternative has no ballot lines and has really made no attempt to focus on state organizations. Vermont is the only state in the country with a left-leaning political party -- the Progressive Party -- that holds a ballot line, and where the Green Party does not also hold a ballot line. It simply doesn't make sense to talk in terms of bringing several smaller parties together, unless this were to be done under the broader umbrella of the Green Party.
That is the critical calculus which Bernie Sanders and his team have to consider. The question is not whether or not to run as a Democrat. The real question is what will be the best option outside of the Democratic primaries: a start-from-scratch Independent campaign which will automatically have to spend an additional few hundred thousand dollars to get to the same starting point, or a campaign as the Green nominee where ballot lines already exist, some structure already exists, and the work of building the campaign can have a more lasting impact? Ultimately, the Green Party is the only existing political party that can serve as a functional framework for the kind of campaign Bernie Sanders might conceivably run, if he chooses to run for president, and chooses not to do so as a Democrat.
The interesting corollary question -- heretofore largely unasked -- is whether the Green Party would even welcome Sanders, especially if he makes a point of remaining an Independent even while seeking the Green nomination. Nader, in 2000, never formally joined the Green Party, and the party and candidate remained an uncomfortable fit, which eventually led to Nader's misguided Independent run in 2004.
Even if the party member issue is set aside, a lot of other things would have to be figured out. The Green Party's 2012 nominee, Jill Stein, remains very popular within the party and is widely believed to be intending to run again in 2016. While the Green Party offers vital infrastructure in many places, in some states what passes for a state Green Party is little more than eight people on an old Yahoo! group, and the Green National Committee has been an incredibly dysfunctional entity for a long time. Greens would also have to figure out how to approach being more of an umbrella entity. It would be unrealistic to think that Sanders would entertain the idea of running as the Green nominee given the party's current state of affairs -- but the potential of a Sanders campaign might be the long-awaited catalyst, and could certainly provide a clearer framework for how to organize more effectively.
The Green Party's 2004 presidential candidate, David Cobb, is fond of saying that "the Democratic Party is where progressive politics go to die." What Trudeau and others have to do a better job of pitching is that the alternative isn't just a more obscure route to the same conclusion. That means more than just educating progressives about the dead end nature of the Democratic primary, and instead portraying what a strong Green campaign might actually look like mechanically.
The problem is that the mechanics are so obscure that even experienced political observers fail to appreciate them. In the room at the Institute of Politics, Sanders fielded several excellent questions from students who clearly have a firm grasp of American politics, but who have little concept of ballot access and the ramifications of election laws. Tellingly, only one person in the room asked a question about the senator's presidential intentions, and she wasn't a student.
And, of course, neither is Sanders -- nor has he been for 50 years. When Ronald Reagan was elected to his second term in 1984, he was 73 years old. In 2016, Sanders will turn 75. Ultimately, his calculation will be based on where and how he thinks he can do the most to make sure the political discourse includes the issues he is most concerned about: climate change, campaign finance reform, single-payer health care, student loan debt. So much of his focus is on issues that will not affect him directly that he must be thinking long-term about the decision he is weighing.
Growing numbers of Americans are expressing their displeasure with the two-party system. Issues like climate change and campaign finance excesses keep getting worse. In the end, it is hard to imagine how Sanders could decide to enter the Democratic primaries, unless his final determination is that the other option is even worse. It is therefore incumbent upon progressives to not only articulate what the best option truly is, but also to put in the work to make that option viable.
My vote for president in 2016 will be for the Green Party's nominee. I'd like to see that be Bernie Sanders. But for that to happen, the debate has to change, progressives have to get their collective act together, and the Green Party has to get back on track. It's a lot to hope for. But since Sanders' only other realistic choice is to forgo his decades of public service outside of the corporate parties, I have to believe that it's what he's hoping for as well.