To challenge the Clinton juggernaut, Bernie Sanders will need a sharper focus

Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Case Involving Donor Limits To Political Campaigns
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 8: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is seen outside the Supreme Court in Washington, on October 8, 2013 in Washington, DC. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee, a first amendment case that will determine how much money an individual can contribute directly to political campaigns. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Photograph by Drew Angerer — Getty Images

Two hours after word leaked that he’s jumping into the 2016 presidential race as Hillary Clinton’s first official Democratic challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent-cum-socialist, turned up at Howard University in Washington for a public question-and-answer session with students. If his performance was any indication of his campaign to come, Clinton shouldn’t lose much sleep over it.

There’s no doubt an appetite on the Democratic left for a harder-edged populism than what Clinton will be willing to muster. Sanders’ task will be proving himself a credible messenger for it, and his pre-debut at Howard on Tuesday did not advance his argument.

He opened with a bleak assessment of American economic inequality, citing a litany of statistics about the hollowing out of the middle class and the accelerating concentration of wealth that should ring familiar to anyone remotely paying attention. The causes are manifold, Sanders said, with much of the blame owing to a “billionaire class … not content with their ownership of the economy” now seizing control of our political process, too. And the wages, he noted, are evident in youth unemployment at 17 percent and African-American unemployment around 25 percent. But on a night when thousands of people — many of them young and black — poured back onto the streets of Baltimore, just 40 miles up the road, to protest their own marginalization, Sanders’ failure to even mention those events as he spoke at one the nation’s premiere historically black institutions stood as a stark omission. It fell to the final questioner, 38 minutes into the event, to make the connection on Sanders’ behalf — that the sense of disenfranchisement fueling the Baltimore demonstrations and others nationwide owes only proximately to police abuse. And then Sanders warmed to it, “To broaden that issue, we need to say police misconduct is not acceptable. But it is also not acceptable in a nation today, which is the richest in the history of the world, that so much of that wealth goes into the hands of the few. And how do we respond to that? We respond to it by learning lessons from the civil rights movement. And that is when people take to the streets and demonstrate, and get on the telephone and they call up their Congressman or their Senator, and they say, ‘You know what? You are going to vote to make college affordable, or you’re not going to get reelected.’ So what we have on our side is a lot of people.”

The Senator’s answers to some earlier questions would likely prompt follow-ups in Iowa living rooms, where voters are more conditioned to pressing candidates. Asked in so many words how he’d reform the tax code to move the United States closer to a territorial system and encourage the repatriation of corporate profits overseas, Sanders said he’d tell “multinational corporations that are stashing their money in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Luxembourg and paying zero in taxes that those days are over.” The question – how? — remained hanging. Likewise, asked how he’d pay for investments in clean energy sources that won’t immediately pay for themselves, Sanders said the question needed to be turned around: “What happens, and what is the cost, if we do not act?”

Sanders comes by his rumpled-professor vibe honestly. But implicit in his forthcoming bid will be an assertion that Clinton is not tuned to the moment and therefore not the party’s best standard-bearer. This morning, Clinton made a campus appearance of her own. Queuing off the Baltimore unrest, she delivered a speech at Columbia University vowing to upend the criminal justice system, end an “era of mass incarceration,” and outfit police with body cameras. Meanwhile, the other stalking-horse for the anti-Hillary vote in the Democratic primary — the as-yet undeclared Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor — cut short a European trip to head back to his hometown on Tuesday for a walking tour of the city. Advisers to Sanders acknowledge he’s a long shot for the nomination. But even if his ultimate ambition is humbler — to give voice to the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party and force Clinton to move in its direction — he’ll need a sharper focus following his official announcement.

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