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Sanders Will Make Clinton Be Specific

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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What can liberals hope to get from the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders -- the sort-of socialist senator from Vermont who formally announced his presidential candidacy today?

Sanders has been an excellent senator. He is skilled at both the workhorse and showhorse sides of the job. And he’ll be helped by a press corps that desperately wants drama on the Democratic side of the 2016 election. But he wouldn’t be the first excellent senator to falter on the presidential trail (Richard Lugar, among many others). 

Even if Sanders runs a strong campaign, he isn’t going to win the nomination. Hillary Clinton’s lead among party actors (and, for those who think it matters, among voters) is the strongest for a non-incumbent in the history of the modern nominating process. She isn't going to be defeated. Even if something happened to Clinton, Democrats won't nominate someone who calls himself a socialist, even if most positions he runs on aren’t much different from what mainstream liberals support.

So what can he accomplish? He isn't well-positioned to push Clinton’s positions in a more liberal direction. He and the small number of liberals who aren't enthusiastic about her don’t have the leverage to do that. 

But Sanders (and former Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland) will make it harder for Clinton to avoid making any commitments on what her policies will be if she is elected. She will still have an incentive to duck as many issues as possible to increase her flexibility in the general election and if she becomes president. But she’ll have to take part in at least a couple of debates. The more the next 10 months or so resemble a real nomination battle, the more she’ll be pushed to endorse specific parts of the Democratic agenda.

Beyond that, Sanders will have a good-sized megaphone to articulate his own ideas. It's unclear what lasting effects that will have. Recall that Ron Paul, in his two presidential runs as a Republican, failed to change core party positions on any of his central issues, even though some Republican politicians were happy to poach some of his successful applause lines and hint that they supported policies to go with them (such as attacks on the Federal Reserve).

What appears to work for Sanders could be emulated by other Democrats in other campaigns next year and in the future. On the other hand, if he winds up failing to crack 5 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats may conclude that Sanders-style liberalism is a loser.

Either way, he’s likely to help Clinton by bolstering the perception that she’s a moderate. Don’t expect her to try to push him out of the contest anytime soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net