Since he entered the Democratic presidential race last year, Bernie Sanders has been described by most media observers as a protest candidate pursuing a symbolic campaign rather than as a plausible nominee actually running to win. Naturally, the decision of an avowed socialist to challenge prohibitive favorite Hillary Clinton at the age of 74 for the nomination of a party of which he is not even a member did not appear to be the product of calculated presidential ambition. Portraying Sanders as an idealist merely attempting to use the spotlight provided by a national campaign to gain some attention for his views on Wall Street and entitlement programs, and to thereby achieve a modest influence over the Democratic Party's economic policy, was arguably treating him more charitably than to suggest that he actually harbored delusions of victory.
Recently, however, the tone of media coverage has begun to change. Sanders has attracted a sufficient level of support that he appears to have a good chance of placing first in at least one, and possibly both, of the two earliest contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has achieved unexpected success in fundraising, performed credibly in debates, and exposed a visible limit to the enthusiasm among Democratic voters for another Hillary Clinton candidacy. With journalists perennially hungry for a real horse race—and often liable to be somewhat ungenerous to Clinton—the media have started to treat Sanders a bit more like a serious contender, even if his actual chances of nomination remain fairly remote.
Of course, more coverage means more careful scrutiny, as well as a more extensive series of questions about the entire range of subjects that a presidential nominee is expected to command. For Sanders, who often appears uncomfortable when the topic of conversation drifts from his comfort zone of economics and political reform, this development carries a new set of risks, as several events over the past few days demonstrate. First, a group of Democratic-aligned foreign policy experts released a statement via the Clinton campaign blasting his comments about Iran and ISIS in Sunday's debate. Next, widely-read author and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic criticized Sanders for opposing reparations for African-Americans, charging him with failing to live up to the same level of left-wing idealism on racial justice as he does on health care and financial regulation. Yesterday, Sanders characterized Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, both of which endorsed Clinton for president, as "part of the [political] establishment" that he is "taking on" with his candidacy, provoking negative comments from feminists online and a critical response from Clinton herself.
We'll probably hear a lot more about this last controversy, as Sanders has handed a Clinton campaign desperate to convince Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats of its liberal bona fides an easy opening to portray him as neglecting social issues in his crusade against economic inequality. Off-the-cuff remarks can be overanalyzed (though the Sanders campaign is standing by them today) but the most revealing aspect of Sanders's comments might be the obvious annoyance they conveyed. If Sanders were in fact merely running a narrowly-focused protest campaign to direct public attention to the plight of the economically underprivileged and the need for a more stringent banking regulation regime, one would think that he wouldn't care much about the fact that these groups, concerned with a different set of issues altogether, would endorse Clinton over him.
But Sanders instead seems genuinely upset that he failed to receive their support. Maybe, in fact, he thinks that he can win after all. If so, he may wind up running a more aggressive campaign against Clinton than a candidate would who simply wishes to promote his issue agenda.