How Bernie Sanders is bidding to be president of the United States

After decades beating the same socialist drum, Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders could cause problems for Hillary Clinton.


Bernie Sanders: 1960s radical

In 1981, Margaret Thatcher received a letter from the Mayor of Burlington, a small town in hippy Vermont, informing her that he was "deeply disturbed" by her government's treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland. That wasn't the only letter that Bernie Sanders wrote that year, says The Guardian. He also sent missives to Hu Yaobang, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and to Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow, urging them "in the strongest possible way" to begin negotiations with other world leaders. "How many cities of 10,000 have a foreign policy?" he wrote later in a memoir. "Well, we did."

Sanders, 74, has always been "unafraid of punching above his weight" and never more so than now. The maverick Vermont senator has established himself as "the primary obstacle between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic ticket for the White House". It's still early days in the race (see below), but Sanders' momentum shows no sign of easing, says the FT.

Initially dismissed as "having no shot", his rallies have attracted huge crowds and money (mostly from small donors) is pouring into his campaign coffers. "Hunched over a lectern, snowy hair aquiver with emotion," Sanders "detects a chance in 2016 to lead a national uprising," drawing strength from the millions of Americans "who loathe mainstream politicians... and the economic status quo," says The Economist.

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Born into a blue-collar Brooklyn family his father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland Sanders became interested in politics at an early age. "A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election and50 million people died as a result.What I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important."

As a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, he joined the Young People's Socialist League and was active in the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1970s, while working as a youth counsellor and carpenter, he ran in four consecutive US senate and gubernatorial elections, representing Liberty Union, a socialist party born from the anti-Vietnam protests, but lost every time. His big break came in Burlington, where he sneaked into office in 1981 by just ten votes.

Many in the town were initially "aghast", says The Guardian. "It was like Trotsky had been elected a mayor." But he proved a capable administrator and was re-elected three times. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1990, then the Senate in 2007. He came to national attention in 2010, when he attempted to filibuster the extension of the Bush tax cuts with a speech nearly nine hours long.

When he isn't working, which isn't often, Sanders spends hours on YouTube watching political documentaries. It's easy to imagine him featuring in one about the radical movements of the 1960s. But, having kept banging the same drum all his life, in the twilight of his career, "the reverberations are starting to be heard".

Will Sanders hurt Clinton's chances?

Since June, the percentage of Democrats who support Clinton has slumped from 58% to 37%, according to the latest CNN poll (possibly due to the controversy about her use of personal email accounts to conduct official business while serving as US Secretary of State). Sanders' support, meanwhile, has jumped to 27%.

From a European perspective, Sanders isn't that much of a radical, says Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. In fact, "Corbynmakes Bernie Sanders look like [Republican candidate] Ted Cruz". A self-confessed "democratic socialist", his policy proposals include moving towards a publicly funded health system, free university tuition, and a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan intended to create 13 million jobs.

Still, if Sanders can force Hillary into making "ever more outrageous sound-bites", so much the better for Republicans especially if he exposes the hypocrisy with which she rails against Wall Street greed when "her own family are poster children for the 1 percent'", says Myra Adams in the National Review. But there's little sign that he's out to antagonise her, says The Economist.

He hasn't launched any explicit attacks on Clinton or "her own armies of wealthy donors". That probably suits his own supporters. Hillary might not be their chosen candidate, but they'll probably end up supporting her anyway. And if she is their candidate in 2016, "they want her fighting fit".