Updated May 26, 2015, 6:35 p.m.
Bernie Sanders is an unconventional candidate, and he’s launching his presidential campaign in a typically unorthodox fashion. Sanders held his “kickoff” event Tuesday in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. It was a rally, but it was pitched more like a festival, complete with free ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s and a performance by “Mango Jam”—a Vermont-based, six-piece dance band that plays a combination of Zydeco, Cajun, and Caribbean music.
The lure of live music, Phish Food, and a beautiful setting on the banks of Lake Champlain drew a crowd that appeared to number in the thousands, but there was a larger point to this political theater. Like other underdogs before him, Sanders is trying to demonstrate he can mount a plausible campaign for the presidency without wooing the billionaires upon which most of the leading contenders will be dependent. He didn’t bring in Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield only to serve their iconic ice cream—the two have long advocated on behalf of liberal causes, including campaign-finance reform (or as they call it, “Get the Dough Out of Politics!”). Sanders needs to motivate activists and small-dollar donors, and he’s hoping this kind of alternative kickoff can set the tone.
This is really his second shot at making a first impression, since Sanders actually entered the White House race a month ago, somewhat more awkwardly and with less fanfare. The would-be political outsider held a 10-minute press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol, during which he dodged questions about Hillary Clinton and somehow neglected to utter the magic words, “I’m running for president.” Sanders has been making noise about a 2016 campaign since last year, but until recently it was hard to tell whether he’d be an all-talk tease like John Bolton and Donald Trump, a slightly-more-youthful version of the liberal rock-thrower Mike Gravel, or something more serious.
To his credit, Sanders has made the most of his turn as the only declared Clinton challenger. He’s (apparently) raised a bit of money, and he’s stayed on his preferred message of critiquing income inequality without directly attacking Hillary. He may not command the same devotion among liberals as Elizabeth Warren, but he has proved to be popular on social media and comes across, like Ron Paul before him, as an older-guy-who-gets-the-Internet. If nothing else, Sanders has emerged as the most interesting Democratic alternative to Clinton, at least as compared to Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, or Lincoln Chafee.
In a 35-minute, forcefully-delivered speech, Sanders announced his intent to launch a “political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally.” Calling income equality “the great moral issue of our time,” Sanders proceeded to set out a vision that will sound familiar to his progressive fans: he pledged to deliver a $1 trillion jobs and infrastructure program, break up big banks, fight for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all healthcare system, and appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn the Citizens United decision. And of course, he vowed to rebalance a tax code that he said was far too generous to the wealthy. “Today,” Sanders said, “we stand here and say loudly and clearly that; ‘Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires.’”
Sanders made little mention of Clinton, and his agenda was far more complete than anything she has offered to date. Still, it’s hard to escape the sensation of watching the bronze-medal game at the Olympics. Does it really matter how far behind Hillary Clinton her challengers finish? The goal for Sanders—and for O’Malley, Webb, or Chafee—is demonstrating that they can beat Clinton, not merely to serve as stand-out sparring partners in the debates. So far, Sanders is saying all the things you’d expect to hear from a candidate who knows he’s an underdog. “Don’t underestimate me,” he told John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times. “We're going to do better than people think. And I think we got a shot to win this thing.” He’s proud of the fact that he’s going to be badly outspent, and at least for now, he’s shown little interest in knocking Clinton to boost himself.
Far from ignoring her rivals to the left, Clinton has begun her much-anticipated candidacy with a decidedly liberal bent. She’s embraced an aggressive stance on immigration reform, hinted at support for top progressive priorities like a goal of debt-free college and overhauling the campaign-finance system, and adopted a Warrenesque tone toward tackling the income gap. One big question, however, is whether any of her Democratic challengers will go after her directly, or whether they’ll be satisfied with campaigning in winks and nods, gently pulling her their way. While Sanders has sworn off “negative attacks,” he seems less shy about painting Clinton as detached from the real world and part of the corporate establishment he is trying to defeat.
Peter Beinart makes the case for taking Sanders seriously, and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki points to his decent polling numbers (compared to his rivals) against Clinton, and his equally decent-if-unspectacular fund-raising. His populist message does resonate with a significant chunk of the Democratic base, and he has been more consistent in delivering it than just about everyone else in the party. Yet elections are about the messenger as much as the message, which is why so many progressives are still clamoring for Warren more than Sanders. Free Ben & Jerry’s and a Cajun concert should help set Sanders apart and give his campaign some energy on its way to New Hampshire and Iowa, which never hurts. The 73-year-old senator, however, is eventually going to have to persuade millions of voters to imagine—without laughing—a self-described socialist sporting a thick Brooklyn accent and a shock of Doc Brown hair in the Oval Office. If he can’t do that, then Bernie Sanders is just playing for second.