These are palmy days for Sen. Bernie Sanders and his improbable campaign for president. Thousands throng his events in Maine, Iowa and Wisconsin. He has raised $15 million in just a few months, and he polls better among Democrats than any one Republican is polling among Republicans.
At a minimum, the "independent socialist" senator has established himself as the insurgent to watch among Democrats in this cycle. So, we should salute the man. But we should also cast a smiling glance toward the other, possibly ultimate, beneficiary of his early success.
That would be Hillary Clinton.
Why? Because in the long run, "the Sanders summer" is likely to boost her bid for the White House. Indeed, from her perspective, Sanders may be the ideal rival en route to the nomination.
He's a man, he's 73, and he's well to her left on most issues. Moreover, he starts from a low base of national recognition, lacks conventional media appeal and hails from a tiny northeastern state that is totally lopsided politically. Did we mention he calls himself a socialist?
Clinton would have had far more to fear from the candidate dynamics had another senator, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, made the race. Even if Clinton prevailed, the inevitable wounds would be felt in the fall campaign.
Warren would have equal claim to Clinton's magic demographic wand: the prospect of being the nation's first female president. Warren is also eight years younger than Sanders, and two years younger than Clinton. She has heartland roots in Oklahoma, and the momentum from a late-blooming career and a scrappy battle to the top of Bay State politics. Her issue profile would match the economic equality mood of the moment without stretching the point.
Sanders, of course, goes further. He pleases crowds with full-throated proclamations about universal health care and Wall Street reform. He quickens the pulse of liberals and populists alike, including many who, like Sanders, have not been card-carrying Democrats.
Beyond that, he has earned his moment with his own brand of vitality and political punch. Brooklyn born and raised, Sanders is far more New York than Clinton will ever be, but even his combative nature carries a certain charm.
All this helps explain Sanders' rise to the level of respectable in national polls, including strong numbers in tuned-in Iowa and New Hampshire. But those polls also bespeak the hunger many Democrats feel for a choice in 2016. They may be "ready for Hillary," or resigned to her, but they feel entitled to a little competition first. It's just part of being a Democrat.
Sanders should benefit from this, tapping into the nostalgia of boomers who rebelled against the Democratic establishment decades ago, backing Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. Some also remember their enthusiasm for Howard Dean a dozen years ago. Those upstart candidates, too, made a virtue of lacking conventional charisma.
Taken together, these threads of political sentiment weave a ready-to-wear mantle for some Democrat plucky enough to put it on. Naturally, the Clinton camp has been watching keenly for years now to see who it would be.
Now, halfway through the critical pre-election year, the Democratic field consists of Clinton, Sanders, and three other white males who have failed to make much of a dent. It is possible one of them will catch fire, but Sanders is in their way. It is also possible other candidates will emerge, but Sanders is in their way, too.
And that helps Clinton.
Ultimately, though, Sanders' greatest boon to Clinton may be in making her work harder to connect — both with the party's activist left and with its traditional lunch-bucket issues. Rooting her in what Dean liked to call "the democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
We always knew that Clinton could not be crowned the nominee in the presumptive manner of an incumbent president, or even an incumbent vice president. We always knew there needed to be, and would inevitably be, someone who mounted a challenge from within Democratic ranks.
Now that someone has emerged. He's Bernie Sanders, and he's doing very well, thank you.
Clinton should be grateful.