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His presidential bid could give Hillary's a boost—or the boot

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Where has the time gone? It's almost June, summer's beginning and I recommend we take a break from the 2014 election season—and get the 2016 presidential campaign under way!

Actually, Republican hopefuls have been working it for a year, but I've got no wisdom for you there, except that Rand Paul is correct about the perils of an all-white political party.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is a shoo-in for the '16 nomination the same as in '08. What's her platform? I checked ReadyforHillary.com, which has your pens, totes and water bottles on sale—proceeds to a SuperPac. I was assured that Hillary is on a first-name basis with world leaders. Plus, "she's fierce." And, "she's funny."

Just in case I might recall that in '08 she was a bit stale.

The argument for Hillary seems to be that it's time for a woman president, and I agree with that, because I'm for Elizabeth Warren, the progressive senator from Massachusetts. But it's apparent that Warren isn't going to run unless Hillary doesn't, and the chances Hillary won't run are about the same as LeBron not suiting up for Game 5 because he hates the attention.

Then there's "Joe Biden," a better politician than Joe Biden ever was, but the reason is that "Biden" (see, e.g., "The Onion's Book of Known Knowledge") is a much more macho guy—aviator sunglasses, says things like "It's a big fucking deal" at White House bill signings. Again, though, it's time for a woman. So Biden, who'd be in it to win it, mustn't.

Which brings me to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Like Biden, Bernie's a 72-year-old white male. But here's the difference: Bernie's not going to win, not a chance, so no worries about Hillary being the nominee. No, the point of Bernie running isn't to deny Hillary but to sharpen her up and force her to be, if not a true progressive in the Warren-Sanders mold, at least not the Wall Street tool she was the last time.

So I can hear you saying, "C'mon, Bernie Sanders? He's not running for president, or I'd have heard something about it by now."

It's true, sadly, that except for a short item in the Technician, the student newspaper at N.C. State, Bernie's stop in Raleigh last month registered a zero for media coverage. Nonetheless, he was here, he spoke for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon to 175 people at State, and it was a darned good speech.

So, yes, Bernie is running, which at this stage means he's moving around the country telling whoever will listen that if enough people get behind him, he'll be a candidate when the time comes.

Bernie is a fascinating political figure. A native New Yorker and self-described democratic socialist, he was active in civil rights and spent time on an Israeli kibbutz before landing in Vermont as an anti-Vietnam War activist, writer—and carpenter. His preferred method of activism was to run for office as an independent or third- party candidate, talking up progressive policies while losing, losing, losing—but losing nobly.

But then he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont—four times—and to the U.S. House in a statewide race (Vermont only has one House seat). He served 16 years before winning a Senate seat in 2006, and he won it again in 2012 with 71 percent of the vote. He runs as an independent, though he caucuses with the Democrats once in office.

The point is, in the tiny state of Vermont, which is as likely to elect a Republican as a Democrat and where no candidate is elected without close-up inspection by the voters, independent-socialist Sanders is so popular that no Democrat will challenge him and many Republicans support him too. Why? The way he tells it, conservative voters don't like it either that billionaires and big corporations are taking all our money.

To run for president, Bernie will need to register as a Democrat, because it's in the months leading up to the Iowa Democratic caucuses and the New Hampshire Democratic primary—right next door to Vermont—when an upstart, under-funded, issues-driven candidate can grab the nation's attention.

(Sanders won't launch an independent campaign, Ralph Nader-style, that could help elect a Republican, he says.)

I'm reminded of 1968, when Eugene McCarthy, running on an anti-war platform, challenged President Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire. McCarthy, a poet, made the intellectual case against Johnson, weakening him enough that Bobby Kennedy got in and Johnson dropped out. I don't foresee Sanders stopping Hillary, but if she's not up to debating him, it might open the door for Warren.

Sanders's case, as he told it in Raleigh, is that the United States and the world face interrelated crises—an economic crisis of soaring wealth and middle-class collapse and an environmental crisis of climate change and global warming. Republicans, who answer to corporate billionaires like the Koch Brothers, refuse to acknowledge them. Democrats, in thrall to Wall Street's billions, see them but won't call for the dramatic, urgent policy change they demand.

Start with a massive federal jobs program, Sanders says, aimed at building renewable energy sources and rebuilding infrastructure. Raise the minimum wage ($10.10 an hour "is a good start"). Invest in education and write down the interest on student debt. Raise taxes on the rich.

In short, reform capitalism with an overlay of social programs that share the wealth, European-socialist style. Above all, Sanders says, we need campaign finance reform so billionaires can't keep buying our elections.

"It's a radical idea," he thunders. "It's called democracy."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Bernie Sanders option"

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