Bernie Sanders's announcement speech was pretty much what longtime observers of the Vermont populist have come to expect from him: a staccato list of policy ideas that most in Washington think too radical to seriously discuss.
In the space of a few paragraphs, Sanders endorsed breaking up the biggest banks and moving to a single-payer health-care system. He called for public funding of campaigns and vastly higher taxes on the rich. He proposed expanding Social Security, building a universal pre-K system, and taxing carbon.
These are big ideas, in every sense of the word: their costs would be huge, their implementation difficult, their consequences far-reaching. They are ideas worth debating and discussing — and they're why Sanders is worth covering.
It's true, of course, that Sanders is polling miles behind Hillary Clinton. But, particularly this early in the campaign, it's not the media's role to simply ratify the advantages of early name recognition and fundraising prowess; it's our role to cover the ideas of the candidates, so voters know what their choices are.
The media's Bernie Sanders problem
It's been fascinating to watch the media struggle to decide how to cover the early days of Sanders's campaign. On the one hand, the frizzy-haired "independent socialist" is polling in the single digits, looks more like Doc Brown from Back to the Future than like anyone who's been elected president since the dawn of television, and has basically no establishment support inside the Democratic Party. Sanders seems certain to be crushed by the Clinton juggernaut, and typically that would make the media's decision easy: don't cover him.
But the media is facing a counter-pressure that didn't exist 10 years ago: there's a big audience that sure seems interested in coverage of Bernie Sanders.
"Somehow, Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old senator from Vermont, has emerged as a king of social media early in the 2016 presidential campaign," marveled the New York Times. Sanders dominates on Reddit and on Facebook. Any news organization clued into the social media tracking software Crowdtangle — and that is basically every media organization in existence — sees pieces about Sanders catching fire on the internet daily.
And so the media is caught between its polls and its shares: by the normal rules of presidential politics, Sanders doesn't deserve any more coverage than, say, Mike Huckabee (who is actually polling higher in the Republican race than Sanders is polling in the Democratic race). But by the normal rules of writing about political figures that readers are actually interested in, Sanders actually merits quite a bit of coverage — he's like Elizabeth Warren, except he's really running for president.
The result has been fairly odd coverage of Sanders. The more socially focused outlets have been boosting Sanders's campaign like crazy (search "Bernie Sanders" at Mic.com, for instance, and, well, see for yourself).
More traditional outlets are writing stories that reflect their ambivalence about Sanders. There's the aforementioned New York Times pieces on Sanders's social media dominance. There's this story, from the Washington Post's Philip Bump, that manages to combine a social-friendly headline suggesting Sanders's support is much higher than people realize ("Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign has more support than Graham, Jindal, Fiorina and Kasich combined") with an analysis that basically concludes he's completely doomed — even more doomed, perhaps, than the long-shot Republicans he's outpolling ("Sanders won't be the Democratic nominee. And neither Fiorina, Kasich nor Graham are likely to be the GOP nominee.").
There's good reason to cover Sanders — but it's not the polls
I'm a Bernie Sanders hipster: I've been covering him since before it made you Facebook friends. And the reason to cover Sanders's campaign now is the same reason Sanders has always been worth covering: in terms of policy proposals, Sanders is one of the most interesting senators in Washington.
He's waged a long campaign, for instance, to supplement pharmaceutical patents with a prize system for pharmaceutical innovation. His proposals would push the federal government to offer huge cash rewards for the development of new treatments — and then those new treatments would pass instantly into the public domain, where they could be produced in low-cost, generic versions. It's neither left nor right in its orientation — rather, it's skeptical of a consensus belief both on the left and the right about patents and innovation, and it's unfettered by Washington's traditional fear of the pharmaceutical lobby.
Another example: most candidates become very quiet and very boring in the weeks before they kick off their presidential campaign. Not Sanders. On May 19, just a few days before launching his campaign, he rolled out new legislation that would levy a tax on stock trades to make tuition at state colleges effectively free. The proposal would also push states to increase their funding for higher education, as well as require public universities to use tenured or tenure-track faculty to provide 75 percent of their instruction.
This is what makes Sanders worth covering: he has big ideas, he does the work to turn them into policy proposals, and he fights for them even when no one is watching.
"This country faces more serious problems today than at any time since the Great Depression," Sanders said in his kickoff speech. But then he decided that actually didn't go far enough, so, taking a breath, he continued: "and, if you include the planetary crisis of climate change, it may well be that the challenges we face now are direr than any time in our modern history."
I actually disagree with Sanders on this. I think America was in much worse shape when the Cold War collided into stagflation, and as terrifying as unchecked climate change is, I'll take it over the threat of nuclear annihilation. For that matter, I think Sanders's free-college idea is questionable — a lot of that money will go to subsidize kids who don't need the help. And even if I'm not a fan of the move toward adjunct labor in universities, the requirement to use so much tenure-track faculty might kill off innovations in teaching that we haven't even considered yet.
But these are the kinds of debates worth having, and they're why Sanders's campaign is worth covering. It's telling that Sanders's webpage already has an "issues" section. As of yet, Hillary Clinton's doesn't.