Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders insists, “We’re going to do better than people think.” I agree.

Granted, a 73-year-old socialist ( he prefers the western European term “democratic socialist”) is a long shot to wrest the 2016 nomination from Hillary Clinton. But he’s a skilled rhetorician who can make her life miserable for the next 14 months, like a gnat buzzing her ear. Sanders has a long- established following, especially among upscale white liberals who are weary of the Clintons and wary of Hillary’s Wall Street ties. He’s the antithesis of the packaged candidate, whereas Hillary is consultant-heavy and perpetually being repackaged.

Only 8.8 percent of Democrats support Sanders, but that’s enough to put him in play. He raised $1.5 million in his first 24 hours as an official candidate, which is more than what Ted Cruz or Rand Paul or Marco Rubio tallied in their initial forays. And he’s outspokenly specific on issues where Clinton is vague. He wants to kill the Keystone pipeline (she won’t say); he wants to expand Social Security (she won’t say); he wants to kill the Trans-Pacific trade pact (she sorta supports it); he wants to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour (she wants a hike, but won’t name an amount); he rails against “ the billionaire class” ( she doesn’t talk that way); and his call for campaign finance reform is buttressed in practice by small- donor fundraising (her call for reform is contradicted by her vacuuming of big donors).

In short, Sanders can be the “Bulworth” of the Democratic race. I’m referring to the 1998 movie where Warren Beatty played Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, a politician so fed up with the system that he went rogue and told impolitic truths. And Sanders is such an underdog that he can afford to wing it and say whatever comes into his tousled head. For instance, his jab at Hillary the other day:

“When you hustle money (from fat cats), you sit in restaurants where you’re spending — I don’t know what they spend — hundreds of dollars for dinner and so forth. That’s the world that you’re accustomed to, and that’s the world view that you adopt. You’re not worrying about a kid three blocks away from here whose mom can’t afford to feed him. . . . That type of wealth has the potential to isolate you from the reality of the world. . . . Hillary Clinton is part of the establishment.”

Bottom line: Bernie Sanders — unlike Martin O’Malley, the ex- Maryland governor who has to build a constituency from scratch — could be the catch basin for Hillary skeptics. If he performs well in the six scheduled debates, he could easily draw a sizable number of protest votes in the early primaries from Democrats who are restive about Hillary’s emails, her speaking fees, her family foundation and her non-specificity on issues.

And the earliest primaries are in Iowa and New Hampshire — small states where you don’t need a bucket of money and where retail politicking is most important, the kind of politicking that Sanders has long since mastered in small-state Vermont.

If Sanders gains traction as the un-Hillary, if Clinton wins the early primaries by margins that seem underwhelming…well, we all know what happens next. The press narrative becomes “ Hillary is vulnerable,” and Democratic insiders start angsting about the race.

But let’s not get too carried away. Sanders draws only a slice of the Democratic electorate (mostly white upscale liberals), with scant crossover appeal to blacks and Hispanics. Also, over time, Hillary will co-opt many of Sanders’ positions, she’ll vastly outspend him in the big- state contests, and by next summer she’ll reel in most of the wary Dems.

Still, there are reports from Team Hillary that the campaign is “frightened” by the Sanders challenge — “not that he would win the nomination, but that he could damage her with the activist base by challenging her on core progressive positions in debates and make her look like a centrist or corporatist.”

In the short run at least, their fears are totally legit.

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Dick Polman is the national political columnist at News- Works/ WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at [email protected]


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