If you thought the political landscape couldn’t be more unsettled, think again. In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders is surging. Hillary Clinton now faces not a coronation, not a cakewalk, but a contest — one she could lose.

Has there ever been a worse election to be an establishment candidate? Certainly not in my lifetime. When a pitchfork-populist billionaire is leading one party’s race and a self-described socialist is rapidly gaining ground in the other, I think it’s safe to say we’re somewhere we haven’t been before.

For much of the past year, Clinton led Sanders in national polls by more than 20 points. Now, according to the Real Clear Politics average, her lead has shrunk to less than nine points — and the most recent survey, a CBS/New York Times poll released this week, showed just a seven-point gap.

State polls should make Clinton even more nervous. Her once-comfortable lead over Sanders in Iowa is now just four points, pretty much a toss-up. And in New Hampshire, Sanders — a longtime senator from next-door Vermont — leads Clinton by six points. It is within the realm of possibility that the presumptive Democratic nominee could lose both of the first two states. Then what?

READ: Donald Trump Rides a Big Wave of Disgust

It’s tempting to look for parallels from 2008: Clinton had the backing of the party establishment, but an insurgent named Barack Obama beat her in Iowa and ran away with the nomination. However, the one bit of finger-in-the-wind punditry I’m comfortable dispensing this year is that comparisons with previous election cycles probably don’t mean much.

Instead, we should start by looking at Sanders and his message. All along, his campaign has enjoyed less media coverage than it deserves. I believe many journalists accepted the conventional wisdom that he is too unpolished and too far to the left to win the nomination — despite evidence that substantial numbers of Democrats disagree.

Sanders’ central campaign theme is inequality. Over the past four decades, he argues, “Wall Street and the billionaire class” have “rigged the rules to redistribute wealth and income to the wealthiest and most powerful people of this country.”

He proposes to do something about that — lots, in fact. He wants wealthy individuals and large corporations to “pay their fair share” in taxes. He wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and put millions of people to work by spending $1 trillion over five years to renew the country’s aging infrastructure.

Sanders denounces free-trade pacts, such as NAFTA — and President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership — contending they drive down wages and eliminate American jobs. On this question, he agrees almost word-for-word with Republican front-runner Donald Trump. As I said, this is not a normal election cycle.

Sanders wants to make tuition free at public colleges and universities. He wants universal child care and pre-kindergarten. He supports equal pay for women — by law — and a requirement that employers provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and a minimum of two weeks’ paid vacation.

And Sanders supports truly universal health care. He describes it as “Medicare for all” and notes that every other major industrialized nation considers medical care a right.

Any Clinton supporters looking for a reason to panic should consider the way the campaign attacked Sanders on health care this week. Chelsea Clinton, stumping for her mother in New Hampshire, charged that “Senator Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP [children’s health] program, dismantle Medicare and private insurance.” Hillary Clinton later doubled down, saying that “if you look at Senator Sanders’ proposals going back nine times in Congress, that’s exactly what he’s proposed.”

Come on, be real. Sanders doesn’t want to eliminate government health programs, he wants to combine them all into one comprehensive system. A more honest line of attack might be that Sanders has yet to spell out how he would pay for universal health care — or, for that matter, get it through a hostile Congress.

Such careful and misleading parsing of language can only be called Clintonesque and only be read as a danger sign. I can’t help but recall how Bill Clinton invited a backlash in 2008 by calling the Obama candidacy a “fairy tale.” Maybe Hillary Clinton should try leaving the family at home.

Sanders still has an uphill battle, especially after Iowa and New Hampshire. But the Clinton campaign has a fight on its hands — and anything smacking of politics-as-usual is more likely to lose votes than win them.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected].

© 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

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