An unconventional campaign launch for an unconventional candidate: Sanders 2016

Meredith Shiner
·Political correspondent

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to the media on Capitol Hill about his agenda in running for president. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – There were no “Bernie 2016!” placards, no cheering masses, no carefully curated Americana-themed campaign song selections here at the Capitol Thursday when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced his intention to seek the 2016 Democratic nomination for president.

Instead, there was just a candidate, a few staffers, a dozen cameras, a few dozen more reporters and tourists who accidentally witnessed as they passed by what could be a seminal moment in the fledgling campaign season — the moment when the first challenger to presumptive favorite Hillary Clinton declared his intention to change the debate within the party.

“We’re in this race to win,” Sanders replied firmly when asked why he was running for the White House.

But it was clear from Sanders’ other statements during his 10-minute press availability that his campaign is not just about winning — it’s about proving that a candidate like him can matter in what he views as a broken election system.

With his announcement, Sanders seemed to create what amounts to a political litmus test for modern campaigning, fueled in part by his self-avowed socialist views of economic equality and in part by the narcissism it takes for any candidate, regardless of ideology, to decide to run for president.

“Let me say this, and I say this to you honestly: One of the hesitancies I had about deciding whether to run or not is obviously dealing with money. I’m not going to get money from the Koch brothers, and I’m not going to get money from billionaires. I’m going to have to raise my campaign contributions through BernieSanders.com, small campaign contributions. That’s how I’m going to do it,” Sanders said.

“But I seriously wonder — and it’s not just Bernie Sanders — whether any candidate who is not a billionaire or who is not beholden to the billionaire class, [is] able to run successful campaigns,” he continued. “If that is the case, I want you all to recognize what a sad state of affairs that is for the American democracy.”

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“I’m not going to get money from the Koch brothers, and I’m not going to get money from billionaires,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told a small assemblage as he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Sanders’ track record in Congress reveals that he can stick to his talking points until he is red in the face (and he often is), railing at how the richest Americans profit on the backs of the lower class. And he is probably serious about his vow not to be bankrolled by billionaires (the campaign website to which he referred features a parenthetical footnote below the standard political disclaimer saying the website is paid for by Bernie 2016 and “not the billionaires.”)

The candidate’s list of what he does not want his campaign, or any campaign, frankly, to be is longer than what he thinks it should be. He directly asked reporters present at his announcement not to view campaigns as “political gossip,” “soap operas” or “the Red Sox versus the Yankees.”

The short list of what he thinks a campaign should be? Serious, substantive policy debates free of influence from the small number of very wealthy Americans who take it on themselves to bankroll what has become the most expensive of endeavors, running for president.

Decrying “vicious personal attacks on candidates” that “the American people are sick and tired of,” Sanders boasted, “I’ve never run a negative ad in my life. I’ve been in many campaigns, and if you ask the people of Vermont, they would tell you Bernie Sanders has never run a negative ad.

“I believe that, in a democracy, what elections are about are serious debates on serious issues,” Sanders said.

He took some shots, when prompted by reporters, on the policy positions of Clinton, and his first reply to a question about the major difference between himself and her was his vote against the war in Iraq and his efforts to win colleagues to his side. Clinton’s vote in favor of the war was a flash point between the former New York senator and Barack Obama in her failed bid to win the party’s nomination in 2008.

All in all, Sanders’ announcement was an unusual break from the usual calculated, poll-tested and professionally produced event. It’s especially rare in modern politics to stage an announcement in front of the Capitol, given voters’ disdain for Washington. The Capitol dome, currently surrounded by scaffolding for renovations, made a particularly unappealing backdrop.

Though according to Senate historian Don Ritchie, Capitol-based presidential announcements used to be more common, especially before the 1970s. Both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy announced their presidential bids from the Senate Caucus Room, now known as the Kennedy Caucus Room.

Sanders will travel to New Hampshire this weekend for his first campaign appearance since making his bid official. And while it’s not clear such an off-the-beaten-path candidate can win the nomination, it at least makes the primary season a bit more interesting as he tries to be a David against the many Goliaths of both parties.

His bid could be viewed as an exercise in futility or vanity by the time the primary is over, but Sanders thinks he can make his voice heard, which is actually the core of his political ethos — that everyone should get that chance.