The Sanders Paradox: Could Hillary Really Be In Trouble?

Could Hillary Clinton really be in trouble in the Democratic presidential primaries against a self-described socialist senator from tiny Vermont? She could. But not yet. Still, you can see the impact already in Monday's left-tinged economic address at the New School in Manhattan, where Hillary hit a lot of atmospheric populism but offered few new proposals.

It's easy in this ADD culture to get caught up in the twitterific splendor of micro-burst trendlets. Senator Bernie Sanders, pushing a hard left-liberal economic message, has drawn big crowds and moved ahead of fellow Democratic challengers -- former Virginia Senator and Navy Secretary Jim Webb, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee -- pretty much everywhere. And in the first two contest states, Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders has moved within very distant hailing distance of front-running Hillary.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told ABC News that he will win Iowa, New Hampshire, and the Presidency.

Sanders has also raised $15 million, nearly all of it online. It's a lot less than Hillary, who has raised $45 million over the past quarter, but Sanders' showing is impressive. Especially given how he's doing it. It suggests he can sustain a long-range challenge without having to spend much time in fundraising, and it means that his financial support could burgeon if he has some early dramatic successes.

Which brings us to the Iowa and New Hampshire polls.

Sanders is now in the 30s in the New Hampshire polls, with Hillary in the vicinity of 50 percent. The Vermont senator, active for decades in New England politics, is helped greatly in the Granit State by particularly strong showings in areas bordering on his home state.

In Iowa, which hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses on February 1st, eight days before the New Hampshire primary, Sanders is in the 30s in one poll and in the 20s in other polls. Hillary is at 50 percent or more in all Iowa polls. Unlike New Hampshire, no part of Iowa borders on Vermont.

But there are a lot of similarities. All three states are almost entirely white. And the active Democrats and most likely primary/caucus participants in all three states tend to be quite liberal.

While Sanders' opening burst has enabled him to gather the low-hanging fruit of the potential non-Hillary primary vote, the going gets tougher from there. But the unplowed territory, at least in the first two states -- which still draw disproportionate attention despite efforts to bring far more diverse Nevada and South Carolina into the early mix -- looks fairly fertile for Sanders.

Still, it's a long way from the 20s and 30s to a winning share of the vote. And Iowa and New Hampshire, despite their baked-in historical role in the Democratic presidential nomination, are almost uniquely UN-representative of a highly diverse Democratic core beyond white liberals.

Nevertheless, something is happening in the Democratic Party. While the Republican Party struggles with the Confederate flag, its base largely hostile to the Enlightenment ethic that gave rise to the American Revolution and what we laughingly call the modern world, Democrats have moved noticeably in another direction.

Socialist ideas are being increasingly embraced amidst our persistently uneven and shallow economic recovery, the long-term hollowing out of the middle class, the rise of an increasingly financialized transnational capitalism, and the growing takeover of American politics by the ultra-rich and big corporations in the wake of the US Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

This is why Hillary, beaten for the 2008 nomination when Barack Obama ran to her left, is running to Obama's left now.

In fact, it looks as though Hillary has moved left in almost all policy areas, with the exception of Israel.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a major policy address on the economy Monday in Manhattan at the New School. She sounded much more liberal than in her 2008 presidential campaign.

With Jeb Bush, caught in a tough battle of his own for the Republican nomination, already raising $103 million in super PAC funds, over six times the take of Hillary's super PAC, she evidently feels she can't alienate potential mega-funders who are staunchly pro-Israeli. Indeed, Bush aims to run much of his campaign operation through the supposedly independent Right To Rise PAC. Bush's super PAC will be run out of Los Angeles by longtime Jeb consigliere Mike Murphy, with whom I'm very well acquainted from his work for former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and would-be Governor Meg Whitman. The latter campaign, the biggest spending non-Presidential campaign in American history, was crushed in 2010 by Jerry Brown. Much more to follow on the Bush super PAC and the Murphy/Bush relationship.

With regard to Sanders, there are ways to effectively undermine candidates running in Iowa on staunchly more liberal platforms, as I learned in my work for Gary Hart in 1984. And Sanders may have a ready vulnerability, also a topic for another time.

But Sanders is representing a very important tendency in politics, and not only because of what has already happened.

Socialism, that not exactly new idea, may be an important new trend.

As I discussed early in the month, experts increasingly see very powerful technological forces having a profound and largely undiscussed impact in the future. With forecasts of heightened obsolescence of jobs coupled with the unavailability of work for large and growing numbers of Americans -- even as scarcity is solved and incomes and wealth for the relative few continue to expand -- a collective response may gather great force.

Of course, that future has not yet arrived.

Sanders is barely even remotely plausible as a President of the United States. As Vermont's US senator, he represents fewer people than any of the 40 members of the California State Senate. He was mayor of Burlington which, at barely 40,000 people, is less than half the size of other small progressive beacon cities like Berkeley and Santa Monica. No one expects a former mayor of those towns to win the White House.

So he's really little more plausible a president than another New Englander who is a darling of the left, first-term Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a career law school professor. Which only highlights the significance of what they're saying.

Naturally, Hillary will try to cannibalize the Sanders message without diminishing her appeal to more conservative voters and, crucially, with Bush going hog wild under the Citizens United decision, funders.

So we have Monday's speech at the longtime left-wing New School in Manhattan. Heavy on some of the Sanders-style atmospherics, and attacks on reactionary-sounding statements by Bush ("people need to work longer hours") and other Republicans. But in terms of policy specifics, she's only taken a few more steps, such as workers sharing in record corporate profits, some tax loophole closure for the rich, and prosecution of high-level financial manipulations.

Is it enough to forestall further Sanders gains? I doubt it. But we'll see. Sanders needs a lot more than some additional gains to win Iowa and/or New Hampshire. And if he wins those two atypical states, he has to expand his appeal beyond his ethnic and ideological band.

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