Bernie Sanders admits there’s something paradoxical about his situation.
He’ll spend a couple minutes of what might soon be a presidential stump speech—and more in an interview—talking about what he considers to be a disastrous Supreme Court decision: the Citizens United case that opened the door for almost limitless outside contributions.
But then he’s weighing a Democratic primary challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And to mount a competitive challenge in what may be the most expensive presidential election in history, he’ll have to take the thing he hates most in politics: money.
“The problem is not in presenting a compelling progressive alternative,” Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, told Fusion in an interview in New York on Wednesday.
“The problem in the country now where running for president may cost more than a billion dollars is how do you get that message out? And it may in fact be too late. It may be that the billionaire class is so powerful in their control over the economy, in their control over the political country, in their control over the media and what gets focused on—it’s possible that they can’t be beaten.”
Sanders was in the midst of a media tour in New York City, and he promised to decide “very soon” on whether he’ll run for president. There’s also the question of whether he’ll do it as part of the Democratic field—he’s an independent senator who caucuses with Democrats—or whether he’ll run as a true independent.
Late in the morning was an interview with The Huffington Post. Then Bloomberg Politics with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The nightcap: An appearance on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central. Sandwiched between all of this, he sat on a couch in the lobby of the luxurious Lucerne hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West side (as Marvin Gaye played on loop in the background)—a couch he joked has become his “office” over parts of the past two days.
But the day started in midtown, where he spoke at the annual convention of the National Action Network, the organization co-founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Here, he showed the type of prowess he could present as a potential progressive alternative to Clinton, rousing the audience of enthused activists and prompting chants on “Run, Bernie, run!” at the end of his speech.
He talked about issues on which he said he’d like to see Clinton and every other candidate get challenged—income inequality, unemployment, the minimum wage, pay equity, single-payer health care, and trade deals. He proposed pilloring tax havens outside the U.S. to help create millions of new jobs by rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
In a veiled slight to Clinton, he gave a nod to “women governors and women senators” who have helped progress feminist causes in the U.S.—but did not mention the possibility of a woman becoming president for the first time.
“It’s not a question of just challenging her,” he said later. “There are enormous issues facing the country that every serious candidate has to focus on…What does Hillary, what does Ted Cruz, what does Bernie Sanders, what does any candidate propose to address those issues?”
Sanders has served in the Senate with both Cruz, of Texas, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the only two major declared candidates for president. A self-described “Democratic socialist,” Sanders has been compared as a person who could bring the same vigor to the Democratic debate as Cruz and Paul are expected to bring to the GOP primary.
It’s a comparison for which he doesn’t much care. He plays up the underdog role even in that context, noting that his 8.5-hour filibuster in 2010 on the Obama administration’s tax-cut deal isn’t remembered nearly as much as Paul’s 13-hour one on drones or Cruz’s 21-hour talk-a-thon on the Affordable Care Act.
“When I did my filibuster, which was shorter but first, there…was a huge amount of social traffic on it,” Sanders said.
“The media wasn’t particularly interested in covering it. But when you have my political point of view, you’re not going to get on network television very often. And that’s part of the reality. When you’re taking on the billionaire class, you’re taking on the media, too. And the media would be more sympathetic to a Rand Paul or a Ted Cruz than a Bernie Sanders, in my eyes.”
Therein, again, lies the challenge for Sanders. He knows he needs the press, which is why he’s running back and forth from his hotel room to the lobby—back to the room—to various Manhattan spots for national hits on Wednesday. And he knows he’ll need a comfortable-enough amount to present a serious challenge.
Maybe a surprise endorsement, too? At the National Action Network convention, Sharpton joked that the next-day media story would focus on the fact that Sanders and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive darling, were seen whispering to each other on stage during a panel.
“So watch out, Hillary,” Sharpton joked.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.