Ever since Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president, he has drawn comparisons to a similarly disheveled, longtime politician with a cult-like following and a strong independent streak: former Congressman Ron Paul, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012. It’s true that Sanders and Paul have a lot in common: They both have rabid fan bases, don’t hold their tongues, and embrace ideologies that are rejected by the establishment of their respective parties. And like Paul, Sanders could challenge his party’s frontrunner early on, but doesn’t stand much of a chance of winning the nomination. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote this week:
Sanders won’t be the Democratic nominee. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be important. Here, it’s useful to think of Ron Paul … He helped bridge the divide between libertarians and the Republican right, and he inspired a new group of conservative and libertarian activists who have made a mark in the GOP through Paul’s son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. If Sanders can sustain and capture the left-wing enthusiasm for his campaign, he could do the same for progressives.
I disagree; Sanders’s campaign isn’t simply one that will put “democratic socialist” ideas on stage against a more mainstream Democratic view, as Paul sought to do with his libertarian ideas. Rather, his candidacy represents a wing of the Democratic Party whose influence on the establishment is increasing with each election, as moderate Democrats (and their Republican counterparts) become extinct.
For a more apt Republican analog to Sanders’ campaign, one must go back to 2000. John McCain, like Sanders, was thought to have little chance to defeat George W. Bush, who, as the son of a former president and governor of a major electoral state, had more money and more party support. But McCain harnessed the anti-establishment sentiment of the time to build a strong online following, at a time when the internet’s infancy as a political tool. He fought a hard campaign against Bush, even winning the New Hampshire primary, before being knocked out of the race in early March.
Apart from the major issue of campaign finance reform, however, he had very little major policy or ideological differences with Bush and the Republican establishment. What set him apart was his press-appointed “maverick” status: He was willing to say things in public that no other candidate would—what David Foster Wallace, in his classic profile of the McCain campaign, called “obvious truths that everyone knows but no recent politician anywhere’s had the stones to say.” (His campaign bus was even called the “Straight Talk Express.”)
Likewise, Sanders refuses to hold his tongue. In June, he opened an interview with HBO’s Bill Maher by saying, “This campaign is about a radical idea: we’re going to tell the truth.” And that message seems to be working with liberals and even disaffected voters. As one New Hampshire resident, a self-described undecided independent voter, told The New Republic recently, “Do I think he can win? No. But I do like the somewhat fresh take of being a straight shooter.”
And much like Bush and McCain fifteen years ago, Clinton and Sanders are closer on the issues than a lot of progressives would like to admit.