An Honest Socialist


Could Bernie Sanders show Elizabeth Warren
how to beat Hillary Clinton?

Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed independent Socialist, has decided to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and if nothing else his presence will be entertaining. He has no chance of winning, but he could prove instructive for voters as a demonstration of where the American political left wants to go.

The 73-year-old second-term U.S. Senator from the country’s most liberal state, and former mayor of Burlington, is sincere about his progressive politics. He thinks the American economy is fundamentally unfair, and that government must tax and spend even more heavily than it already does to balance out incomes.

He thinks Social Security should increase benefits, no matter that it is heading toward insolvency. Higher taxes can make up the difference. He’d shrink the defense budget so foreign military operations would be all but impossible. He wants single-payer health care, though his own state gave up the experiment as too expensive. He thinks foreign trade impoverishes the middle class.

That he often shouts all this with a shock of uncombed white hair, in a piercing New York accent, gives him the appearance of a modern John Brown announcing the hell-fire that is reserved for successful capitalists.

Milton Friedman once observed that the 1928 platform of the Socialist Party of America may have seemed radical at the time, but nearly all of it was eventually absorbed by mainstream parties and became law. That’s also Mr. Sanders’s hope. He wants to drive the Democratic Party debate to the left so it drags Hillary Clinton along with it.

And it may be working. Mrs. Clinton has already disavowed her husband’s trade agenda. She’s proposed a rewrite of the First Amendment to limit political speech, and don’t be surprised if she also embraces expanded entitlements. The difference is that Bernie believes what he says, while Hillary believes whatever seems necessary to win.

The practical political question is whether Mr. Sanders, or some other liberal gadfly, can do well enough to serve as a stalking horse for a stronger candidate against Mrs. Clinton. Recall how Eugene McCarthy drove LBJ out of the 1968 race with a strong performance in the New Hampshire primary. Robert Kennedy soon jumped in as a more electable antiwar candidate.

It’s much harder in this era to enter the campaign so late. But if Mr. Sanders or someone else can expose Mrs. Clinton’s political weakness, the party drums will pound even harder for Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard populist, to get in the race. And don’t rule out John Kerry, the Nantucket populist, if he strikes a nuclear deal with Iran. Unlike other candidates, Mr. Kerry has a wife who can write big checks.

As Mrs. Clinton is learning, this is not her husband’s Democratic Party. Mr. Sanders isn’t running as a vanity project but because he thinks millions of Jon Stewart-Barack Obama Democrats have moved his way. The test of his influence will be how much of his agenda Mrs. Clinton adopts.

This article was originally posted at the Wall Street Journal.