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.