Sen. Bernie Sanders is almost certainly running for president in 2016. He's made allusions to his candidacy throughout the summer, most recently on Sunday's Meet the Press, when he told moderator Chuck Todd that he was "thinking of running for president."
At a National Journal/CNN "Politics on Tap" event Tuesday night, co-moderator Jake Tapper pressed Sanders on the issue, asking what "thinking about it" really means. He had to have decided, right?
"Nope," Sanders said matter-of-factly, eliciting laughter from the audience. "Actually, I haven't."
In all likelihood, Sanders won't ever be president, let alone win the Democratic nomination. Sanders likely knows this, or at least knows how hard a bid for president would be. He told Tapper and co-moderator Ron Fournier of National Journal that significant action on his top priorities for a campaign—nationalized health care, climate change, the wealth disparity, overturning Citizens United—could only succeed with serious support.
"That's a pretty tough agenda," he said. "The only way somebody with my politics can get elected is by putting together an unprecedented grassroots movement."
According to the latest polls, a grassroots base hasn't yet blossomed. In a poll of Iowa Democrats last week, only 5 percent said they'd vote for Vermont's junior senator, far fewer than those who said they'd go for Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But Sanders has a committed base of supporters who swoon over his decades-long attention to economic inequality.
A self-described "democratic socialist," the longest-serving independent in the Senate has been vague about whether he'd run for president as a Democrat or on a third-party ticket. In June, he told National Journal he was no "spoiler," and wouldn't play the Ralph Nader to an inevitable Clinton run.
By Tuesday night, however, he'd had it with talking about Clinton. "I can't walk down the street without being asked about Hillary," he complained. "If I decide to run for president, it's not against Hillary Clinton."
He also weighed the pros and cons of running as an independent, lamenting the fact that the Citizens United decision requires him to be independently wealthy or gain major-party backing to run a serious campaign.
"If I were a billionaire," he told Tapper and Fournier, "it might make very simple, common sense to run as an independent, because you have the money to develop independent political infrastructure in fifty states. I don't have that money."
On the other hand, with the anger at the two-party system, he said, "running as an independent makes sense." Only about half of Americans actually care about which party controls Congress, according to a May Associated Press poll, and most are extremely disillusioned with government.
A Ron Paul-esque presidential bid could well be up his alley. If Sanders officially enters the race, he may be able to pull the national political conversation leftward, much like what Paul did with libertarian concerns in 2008 and 2012. Wealth inequality and campaign finance—two of Sanders's banner issues—are topics Clinton can't go toe-to-toe on: She won't risk alienating her supporters at Goldman Sachs and other banking giants, and has made memorable blunders about her own fortune.
Sanders said his bid would be about opposing Wall Street and shedding light on the growing income gap between the very rich and the working class. "If I run, my job is to take on the billionaire class," he told Tapper and Fournier. "Take on the Koch brothers ... take on corporate America."
If the decidedly populist Sanders does actually run, he'll face a seriously uphill fight. But it's a fight that could shift the crux of the election.