For several months this has been the comparatively cynical leftist view of Bernie Sanders: that his campaign is a shell game. His purpose in the otherwise largely uncontested Democratic Presidential Primary is to create excitement within liberal and specifically economically populist political circles that can then at least in part be ceded to Hillary Clinton when she (inevitably, the theory goes) becomes the nominee.
There’s been multiple responses to that among the communities targeted by that supposed campaign. Some have insisted that Sanders is the only candidate they would support so that strategy wouldn’t work. Others have staked out positions more critical of the current system – particularly on racial inequality – than Sanders, suggesting he himself would need his radical bona fides challenged. Perhaps most commonly however, people have noted that even if he or his campaign only hope to influence the election and not have him run in the general election or even win, he can still have an effect not just on popular support for the Democratic Party but on policy. The most common form of this has focused on language. The hope is that he will force Clinton into policy promises or even more broadly will change the type of questions asked of candidates in all primaries.
That’s the exact note hit by one piece hosted by the Campaign for America’s Future: that Sanders’ “hope was to ‘trigger the conversation’ about the way the economic and political system is rigged by the billionaires and their corporations. He wanted to begin a movement around a vision of how the country could be run for We the People instead of a few billionaires and their giant corporations”. You’ll notice the lack of detail, because public discussion this early in the campaign policy does tend to be pretty vague and broad. While Sanders’ campaign has led in the primary at providing details about their planned policies, few other campaigns have reached near that level of specificity or had either critics or the media ask for that. Even assuming that Bernie can pressure the rest of the Democratic field into talking similarly to him he’d have to stick in the race long enough for detailed policy rather than general rhetoric to be standard in order to put pressure on other campaigns, namely Clinton’s.
In the past week or so we’ve not only finally started to reach that time in the primary, but Sanders deliberately testing the waters to see if that dynamic of forcing other people in the primary to the left on policy can work. Clinton’s eventual adoption of a plan similar to Sander’s proposal for how to make higher education more financially accessible came with a months-long lag time. Sanders originally presented his plan in May, with the aims of it being to increase the number of people with college degrees and decrease the economic hardships for those who are in the process of attaining one. In August, Clinton capitulated on that issue and discussed a draft of a similar plan that more specifically emphasizes reducing overall student loan burdens rather than enrollment and graduation, Sanders’ focuses.
Two days ago, Sanders pressed the issue further by stating that he would pay for his plan with a tax on financial industry transactions. Today, he doubled down while circulating a petition in support of his Workplace Democracy Act – which is designed to promote unionization and related labor organization. In short, he’s testing the nature and scope of his influence after having eventually gotten Clinton to present her own version of a policy plan similar to his. Martin O’Malley appears to even be possibly doing his own pushing on the front-runner Clinton, by urging the US to embrace a more humanitarian policy on refugees. Whether these efforts can hone their ability to lead Clinton into advocating for these types of policies remains to be seen, as does that these promises can actually materialize into political action in office.