Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders got into the presidential race Thursday, becoming Hillary Clinton's first official challenger for the Democratic nomination. His website has a disclaimer: "Paid for by Bernie not the billionaires."
Although he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, he's not a registered Democrat — he's actually the longest-serving independent in congressional history. (There's no rule, by the way, barring candidates who are not registered Democrats from running in the Democratic primary.)
Sanders is one of those politicians known by only one name — everyone in the Capitol knows who "Bernie" is. He's a fiery, left-wing voice who calls himself a democratic socialist. And he's never lost his Brooklyn accent or his absent-minded professor look.
Here are three reasons why Sanders' candidacy could actually help the Clinton campaign:
1. Progressives now have a champion
OK, he's not Elizabeth Warren. But the left-wing base of the Democratic Party has been hungering for an alternative to Clinton and now they have one. HRC herself welcomed him into the race by tweeting: "I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America's middle class."
Sanders will force her to focus on issues important to the progressive base of the party, like climate change, campaign finance reform and income inequality. All of which she has already been talking about. But the contrast with Sanders may help her find that sweet spot between the left wing of the party and the center of American politics a little faster. She's a progressive who says "the deck is stacked in favor of those at the top," she supports a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and she wants an "end to the era of mass incarceration." But, in comparison to Sanders, it's clear she's no socialist.
2. All candidates need a sparring partner
Clinton can't stand on the debate stage alone. Having challengers will help her sharpen her message and her skills, which are rusty from being out of the arena for eight years. And the sparring will not be lethal because Sanders has said that although he thinks questions of Clinton's ethics are "fair game," he will not air any negative ads against her. Sanders will be joined by other Clinton challengers. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to join the race; so is former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb and the former Republican senator and Democratic governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee.
3. He can't beat her
Sanders is a long shot. So are the other three potential Democratic candidates. But they're all serious, substantive challengers. All of them are current or former governors or senators — there's not a talk show host or a House member in the bunch. Democratic activists all over the country have been saying they want a real debate, not a coronation. And now they have one. Even though HRC's position as the leader of the Democratic pack hasn't changed, a multicandidate race could make the eventual nominee a much stronger general election candidate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: How does it happen that the top 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? And my conclusion is that that type of economics is not only immoral - it's not only wrong - it is unsustainable. It can't continue.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
That's Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking today about why he is running for president. Sanders spoke at the U.S. Capitol. He joins Hillary Clinton as the only other announced major contender for the Democratic nomination. And as you heard, he plans to run as a fiery left-wing populist. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi Robert.
SIEGEL: Remind us, who is Bernie Sanders and what does he bring to the race on the Democratic side?
LIASSON: Well, he's the senator from Vermont. He's served in the House. He's also served as the socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt. He's the longest-serving independent in Congressional history. And he still calls himself a Democratic Socialist, and he's one of those people who goes by just one name - in the Capitol, there is one and only Bernie. He's never lost his distinctive Brooklyn accent, as you could hear, and he's never lost his absent-minded professor look. He's going to inject a lot of plain-speaking, left-wing politics into the race. As you just heard him talk, income inequality is a big issue for him. So is climate change and campaign finance reform. On his website, there's a disclaimer that said it's, quote, "paid for by Bernie, not the billionaires." And all of that being said, he's no Elizabeth Warren, who is the number-one rock star of the Democratic left, but the progressive base of the party now has a real champion in the race.
SIEGEL: He's an independent in the Senate. Is he actually - and he's seeking the Democratic nomination. He's not running as an independent.
LIASSON: That's right.
SIEGEL: Is he actually a Democrat?
LIASSON: He's not a registered Democrat. There is no party registration in Vermont. He does caucus with the Democrats in the Senate, but there's no Democratic Party rule in any state that says you have to be a registered Democrat to run in the Democratic Party in the Democratic primary. Sanders himself has said that because he isn't a billionaire he can't run as a third-party candidate. So this is a much easier way to get on the ballot everywhere. And he doesn't want to be a spoiler, like a Ralph Nader.
SIEGEL: He is joining Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race. What effect do you think his candidacy will have on hers?
LIASSON: I think it's a good thing. Every candidate, no matter how far ahead they are, needs a sparring partner, somebody who will force her to sharpen her platform. Now she has her first official challenger. She tweeted right away, quote, "I agree with Bernie, we have to focus on helping America's middle class." And she is already talking about some of the things that are important to the left-wing base of the party that he'll be talking about. The deck is stacked in favor of those at the top, she said in her announcement video. Her first policy statement on the trail was in favor of a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Her first policy speech was about criminal justice reform calling for an end to the era of mass incarceration. And Sanders could also provide Hillary Clinton with a useful contrast. She cares about progressive issues, but she's not a Socialist.
SIEGEL: You think he stands a chance?
LIASSON: Probably not. He is the definition of a long shot. But in addition to the many progressive Democrats who want an alternative to her, there are many Democrats who support Hillary but have been disheartened by the early stages of her candidacy. They're still for her, but their enthusiasm has been dampened by all the stories about the emails and the foundation fundraising. And Sanders is an alternative - not one that will be going after her, Sanders himself has said he will run no negative ads against Hillary Clinton.
SIEGEL: Well, now that the number of announced candidates in the Democratic field has doubled...
SIEGEL: ...What do you have to say about the field?
LIASSON: It's going to get bigger. It still has a prohibitive front runner - Hillary Clinton - but we're waiting for three other potential candidates to announce - Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican senator and Democratic governor of Rhode Island, and former Democratic Senator Jim Webb. All of them, along with Bernie Sanders, are long shots. But they are serious, substantive candidates and Democratic activists all over the country have said they wanted a real debate, not a coronation, and it looks like that's what they're going to get.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.