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With Elizabeth Warren saying no to 2016, Bernie Sanders eyes populist mantle (+video)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, swings as hard left as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts does. But can he appeal to the liberal base?

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont speaks during a town hall meeting in Ames, Iowa, earlier this month. Senator Sanders says he’ll decide by March whether to launch a 2016 presidential campaign.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

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No. No. A thousand times no. Elizabeth Warren is still not running for president. But if not the senator from Massachusetts, then who might don the liberal mantle in 2016? Sen. Bernie Sanders, perhaps?

The independent senator from Vermont has been traveling the country testing the waters.

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On Monday, he laid out his agenda at the Brookings Institution think tank. His shock of white hair and often-rumpled appearance contrast sharply with the trim and energetic put-togetherness of Senator Warren – but they certainly read from the same political page.

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“Today, in my view, the most serious problem we face as a nation is the grotesque and growing level of wealth and income inequality,” he said, railing against “a government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires.”

Sanders swings as hard left as Warren does: Social Security needs to be expanded, not reduced (he would pay for it by raising the payroll tax cap); the big Wall Street financial firms are beyond reform and they must be broken up; health care for all is a right, which should be provided by a Medicare-like single-payer plan. A big infrastructure program would create millions of jobs, and free college and graduate education would give the workforce competitive chops. 

There’s only one problem with this ersatz Warren theory. Nobody can replace her, because, as Amy Walter of the independent Cook Political report puts it: “Elizabeth Warren is the only Elizabeth Warren of the race” (even though she’s not in it).

Warren’s appeal is not that she’s the anti-Hillary, or that the Democratic base is yearning for a more liberal voice, says Ms. Walter. It’s her sparkliness.

“She’s shiny and she’s new and she’s fresh and she’s engaging and she’s motivating. So I don’t think that’s a slot that you can just sort of interchange with any other Democrat.” 

Sanders seems to recognize this.

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“I knew Elizabeth Warren before she was Elizabeth Warren” – back when she was merely a “brilliant” Harvard law professor with an ability to explain complicated issues in an understandable way, he said on Monday. “She blew me away.” 

And Hillary Rodham Clinton blows everyone else away, whether it’s Warren or Sanders.

In the February poll by Bloomberg Politics-St. Anselm College, Mrs. Clinton buries these two like a blizzard – and right in their own backyard. The former secretary of state, senator, and first lady is the top choice of 56 percent of likely voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, according to the poll. Warren comes in a distant second at 15 percent; Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden tie for third at 8 percent each.

Clinton’s name recognition is “about 10 times greater than mine,” admitted Sanders, but then again, he’s faced such odds before. In the 1970s, he ran twice for governor of Vermont and twice for the US Senate – once setting a personal best of 6 percent of the vote. In 1981, the socialist finally emerged victorious as an independent running for mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, challenging a five-term Democrat.

 “Nobody, but nobody thought that we had a chance to win,” Sanders said at the start of his talk.

He crossed the finish line – after a recount – by a mere 10 votes.

Of course, the national stage is hardly the shores of Lake Champlain or the dairy farms that produce the state’s famed cheddar cheese. In underdog cases like this, sometimes candidates run to influence the primary debate. Others run as third-party or independent candidates and then become “spoilers” in the general election – think Ross Perot or Ralph Nader.

Sanders says he’s still sorting out whether to run, and if so, whether to run as an independent or a Democrat. Voters sick of both parties value the independent label, but it takes gobs of money and organizational prowess to get on all the state ballots.

Sanders made clear, however, that he has no desire to be a son-of-Nader.

“I will not be a spoiler,” he stated emphatically.

If he wanted to debate Clinton in the primaries, he would have to register as a Democrat. To be sure, he offers a more left-leaning message, but not one that would make much of a difference, according to political observers.

Says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake: “What he speaks to is an agenda. And he brings forth those ideas. But much of that agenda Hillary Clinton supports, too.”


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