Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders may be the GOP’s secret weapon as the 2016 election nears.
When Sanders — a Vermont senator and self-proclaimed socialist — first announced his presidential campaign, no one took him seriously. Most Americans know that his far-left economic plan would wreak havoc on the economy.
Still, Sanders shouldn’t be written off entirely. While he has zero chance of winning the nomination, this rambling eccentric could become a powerful tool for Republicans in the fight against the Hillary Clinton machine.
Sanders only announced his campaign a few weeks ago, but he has already proved himself to be a vicious, white-haired attack dog aimed squarely at Clinton.
He wasted no time in criticizing her positions on international trade agreements, climate change, and the Iraq war. He even took a personal shot at Clinton’s wealth, suggesting that the millions of dollars she has earned in recent months may influence her “perspective on the struggles” of working-class Americans.
Democrats will hear valid criticisms of her that would otherwise be written off as mudslinging politics coming from a Republican candidate.
Attacks from within Clinton’s own party, let alone the pressure from Republicans, will put her on the defensive for a good part of the immediate future. The former Secretary of State has already been bombarded with tough questions from Republicans, on scandals from the Clinton Foundation to Benghazi. Now, with Sanders turning up the heat, she’ll be forced to defend herself from every angle.
This will quickly become a difficult balancing act for Clinton. She will need to choose her battles with caution, designing her counterclaims in such a way that she doesn’t stray too far from the mainstream or alienate the radical left.
Sanders’ consistent critiques will also allow conservative candidates to spend less time and energy on the offensive.
With Sanders driving anti-Clinton narratives, Republicans can shift their focus to other critical aspects of their own campaigns. Conservative policies and visions for the nation — not simply avoiding another Democratic presidency — can become the center-point of 2016 GOP rhetoric.
Sanders could also put up a tricky roadblock for Clinton when it comes to young voters.
Clinton is betting heavily on winning big with millennials should she become the Democratic nominee. America’s youngest voters overwhelmingly turned out for Obama, and were a key part of his success in both his campaigns.
But Clinton shouldn’t assume that it will be easy to evoke the same fanatical support from today’s twentysomethings.
Millennials, who could make up the nation’s largest voting bloc in 2016, have already shown surprising enthusiasm for Sanders. On Facebook, the socialist already has 1.1 million likes — over 200,000 more than Clinton. And a handful of powerful progressive groups targeted at millennials, such as MoveOn.org, have also stepped into Sanders’ corner.
Sanders has been vocal about issues like increasing government-subsidized student loans, legalizing marijuana, and fighting climate change — all issues that tend to grab the attention of millennials. Make no mistake, he can be bold and shamelessly progressive on a lot of issues, and as a fringe candidate, he really has nothing to lose. This kind of passionate rhetoric will resonate with young Americans, who have become disillusioned and frustrated by the status quo in Washington.
Clinton, on the other hand must be careful to tame herself, keeping modest tone to appeal to moderate Democrats.
Ultimately, Sanders represents what Clinton can’t afford to be, and he could steer young voters to the left of Clinton, making it difficult for her to woo them back once she wins the primary. To win these voters in 2016, Clinton will have to pander to the left wing. This will further harm her credibility and likely cost her a significant number of independent voters.
So here’s the catch.
Rather than calling Sanders an extremist wacko bird, the GOP would be smart to ignore him. Let Sanders attack Clinton. Let him gain support among progressives and millennials. Let him make it harder for her every step of the way.
And the Holy Grail? A bitter Sanders, unable to win the Democratic nomination, announces at the end of this year that he is running for president as an independent. After all, he won election as an independent for mayor, congressman, and senator. Why not president? There is no doubt that this has already crossed his mind.
Follow Kristin on Twitter @KristinBTate.