“Don’t underestimate me,” declared newly announced presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. That may be good advice.
By conventional standards, Sanders’s candidacy is absurd: He’s not well known, he doesn’t have big money donors, he’s not charismatic, and by Beltway standards, he’s ideologically extreme. But candidates with these liabilities have caught fire before. Think of Jerry Brown, who despite little funding and an oddball reputation outlasted a series of more conventional candidates to emerge as Bill Clinton’s most serious challenger in 1992. Or Pat Buchanan, who struck terror in the GOP establishment by winning the New Hampshire primary in 1996. Or Howard Dean, who began 2003 in obscurity and ended it as the Democratic frontrunner (before collapsing in the run-up to the Iowa Caucuses). Or Ron Paul, who in 2012 finished second in New Hampshire and came within three points of winning Iowa.
What did all these insurgents share? They gave authentic voice to the grievances of their time. In the wake of a congressional banking scandal and a congressional pay hike, Brown vowed to take “take back America from the confederacy of corruption, careerism, and campaign consulting in Washington.” In an era of escalating globalization, Buchanan promised a “conservatism that looks out for the men and women of this country whose jobs have been sacrificed on the altars of trade deals done for the benefit of trans-national corporations who have no loyalty to our country.” In a Democratic Party whose activists felt betrayed by their leaders’ support for the Iraq War, Dean pledged “to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”