Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who supports socialist policies, lifted off his long-shot bid Thursday for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination by declaring war on the “billionaire class” that he contends runs the political system.
In an address on the Capitol lawn, Sanders laid out an agenda that took aim at major conservative donors to Republican causes but also landed subtle jabs on the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former secretary of state whose political ties to Wall Street have left some liberals yearning for an alternative.
“I don’t believe that the men and women who defended American democracy fought to create a situation where billionaires own the political process. That’s a huge issue,” Sanders told reporters.
He cited his opposition to the Iraq war, when he was a member of the House in 2002 and then-Sen. Clinton (N.Y.) supported the conflict, as well as staunch opposition to an emerging trade deal with a dozen Pacific-Rim nations that had its initial phases negotiated when Clinton served as the nation’s top diplomat.
His main rhetorical targets were David and Charles Koch, industrialist brothers who have become political bogeymen for liberals because of their vast political spending. But Sanders suggested that it was valid to raise questions about the Clinton Foundation, which has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for accepting foreign donations.
“The issue here is not the Clinton Foundation — that’s a fair issue — the issue is the huge amount of money that it takes to run a campaign today,” he said.
The event was as unusual as Sanders, 73, with flowing white hair that evokes an image more in line with a New England professor than a presidential contender. Technically, Sanders had announced his candidacy in an e-mail to supporters earlier Thursday, so this was just a chance for him to lay out an agenda.
He never said that he was running for president in a five-minute speech that was rambling at times, never asked for anyone to vote for him and began his remarks with a “whoa” as the microphone had a slight backfire.
He took five minutes of questions, including a reminder that the nation was “looking at a guy indisputably who has the most unusual political history of anybody in the United States Congress.”
He is the longest-serving independent in Congress, first winning a House seat in 1990 and refusing to formally join the Democratic Party even as he caucused with Democrats in both chambers. Now seeking that party’s highest calling, he rejected any sense that he would register with the party now.
“No, I’m an independent,” he said as he left Thursday’s press availability.
The contrast between Sanders and Clinton is stark, and his candidacy — especially his presence in the expected primary debates this fall — threatens to remind base Democrats why they may have pause supporting Clinton. The comparisons are plenty: Sanders’s authenticity and hot, unvarnished rhetoric to Clinton’s careful script; his unabashedly liberal agenda to her years of triangulation; his grass-roots, small-donor campaign to her paid army of staffers and super PAC allies.
On Thursday afternoon, Clinton said via Twitter, “I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America’s middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race. –H.”
Sanders has impressed liberal activists in his visits to early caucus and primary states. In South Carolina last weekend, he fired up delegates at the state Democratic Party’s annual convention and drew a standing ovation with his impassioned assault on the “billionaire class.” He warned that the United States is becoming “an oligarchic form of society.”
With the media and many Democratic activists hungry for a competitive primary, Sanders is banking on gaining notice through the news media, especially because of his tendency to voice his strong feelings about issues.
The danger for Clinton is that, because of her dominance at the outset of the race, any surge by Sanders or another challenger in the polls could be interpreted as a sign of her weakness and establish a narrative that she is no longer the immutable, presumptive nominee.
However, Sanders is under no illusions about the challenges ahead. His advisers acknowledge how unlikely it is that he could wrest the nomination from Clinton, who is as commanding a favorite for the nod as any non-incumbent in recent history.
“We all understand that Hillary Clinton is an incredibly formidable opponent, and beating her in the Democratic nomination process is going to be extremely difficult,” Sanders adviser Tad Devine said. “But I do think there’s a path forward for Bernie.”
That path begins in Iowa, home to the nation’s first presidential caucuses. The history of the Iowa caucuses is replete with liberal challengers who upset establishment favorites, most recently Barack Obama in 2008.
Sanders’s advisers see similarities between Iowa and Vermont: Both are relatively rural states with long traditions of grass-roots political organizing. Democrats in both states also have a populist streak and are motivated by issues such as economic fairness and war and peace, two areas where Sanders has begun drawing contrasts with Clinton.
From there, Sanders hopes to do well in neighboring New Hampshire, which hosts the first presidential primary, and in the Nevada caucuses to follow, where the backing of labor unions — whose leaders and members long have supported him — will be critical.
Sanders knows he will need to defeat Clinton, at least in some smaller early contests, to establish himself as a credible challenger. His strategy is to play aggressively in caucus states, where Clinton performed poorly in 2008 and where they believe his grass-roots organizing could pay off, including Colorado and Minnesota. He also thinks Massachusetts is a larger primary state he could win, advisers say.
Sanders is most comfortable campaigning at the community level; he uses town hall meetings as his principal means of communicating, as opposed to reading speeches from teleprompters, which advisers see as an attribute, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“He’s very real, he’s very good just interacting and talking and being himself,” Devine said. “That translates extremely well. In this age, when voters are really into authenticity, it’s just a better way to present a candidate.”
The Sanders campaign believes it can raise about $50 million to wage a credible primary campaign and fund television advertisements in the early states. They expect much of that money to come online from the deep network of small-dollar donors Sanders has built over his years in the Senate.
As of now, there is no official pro-Sanders super PAC, and his advisers said there are no plans for one. He does not have a loyal base of major donors willing to give millions of dollars to an outside group on his behalf.
But Sanders hopes to use his absence of a super PAC to his advantage, making the Citizens United court decision — which made it easier to spend unlimited funds on elections — a centerpiece of his populist message. This could be potent, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters were turned off by super PAC spending in the 2014 midterms and where presidential super PACs on the Republican and Democratic side are expected to overload the airwaves with television advertising over the next year.
The Sanders campaign will be based in Burlington, Vt., and the candidate hopes to have a staff in place by May, when he formally launches his bid. For now, the efforts are being run in part by Devine and his business partner Mark Longabaugh, who each have decades of experience working on presidential campaigns.