Time to stop feeling the Bern
It’s sad when a campaign that has inspired so many and brought new blood into a presidential race turns petty, vindictive, and ugly. But that’s what’s happening to the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The Democratic presidential nomination is out of his reach, and he and his campaign know it. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has received 3 million more votes than he has, and she is nearly 300 ahead in the pledged delegate count. She needs only 100 or so more delegates from the remaining contests to win the nomination outright when the superdelegates are added in.
There was an ugly display from Sanders supporters at the state Democratic Party convention in Nevada. When they were unable to overturn the results from voters, in which Clinton won the majority by six points, some Sanders people threw chairs, cursed, and screamed, and later made death threats in phone calls to Nevada Democratic Chair Roberta Lange.
The Sanders campaign was silent. It took days for a statement, which should have been simply along the lines of, “I’m sorry some of my supporters crossed the line. Violence and threats of violence are never appropriate.” Instead, Sanders responded with “self-righteousness and hypocrisy,” as an editorial in the Washington Post put it.
Mr. Sanders’s irresponsibility is sadly unsurprising. He has stirred up populist energy over the past several months with anti-corporate scapegoating and extravagant claims about policy. He has indulged and encouraged hyperbolic feelings that the country is badly adrift, that most of the nation agrees with a left-wing agenda but is trapped in a corrupt system, and that nothing but a political revolution will do. He has attracted some big, passionate crowds. But as he has lagged in votes, he increasingly has questioned the legitimacy of the process and encouraged his supporters to feel disenfranchised. The result is a toxic mix of unreason, revolutionary fervor and perceived grievance.
Bernie Sanders is a long-time independent who only became a Democrat to run for president in 2016. His campaign themes about inequality, campaign financing, and financial corruption have resonated with his many followers across the country.
There aren’t many primary contests left, but a big one looms in California on June 7. The Sanders camp seems to be gambling everything on a win there, even though Clinton has led in every California poll since 2015. FiveThirtyEight gives Clinton a 93 percent chance of winning the state. And whatever the primary’s outcome, that will be the evening that Clinton becomes the presumptive Democratic nominee.
But the Sanders campaign is willing to throw a wrench into the works, no matter what. They are still planning to continue the contest up to the Democratic National Convention in late July. A New York Times story described the dangers of that approach:
While Mr. Sanders says he does not want Mr. Trump to win in November, his advisers and allies say he is willing to do some harm to Mrs. Clinton in the shorter term if it means he can capture a majority of the 475 pledged delegates at stake in California and arrive at the Philadelphia convention with maximum political power.
What political power would that be? The party will develop a platform, but that’s a document that’s largely symbolic. There can be changes in process rules, and Clinton says she is open to improving the process. Will that be enough to make the Vermont senator call for unity? “So far, though, Mr. Sanders has not indicated that he would ask his delegates to support Mrs. Clinton, as she did in 2008 for Barack Obama,” the Times story said.
The Sanders camp is clearly alienating other Democrats. Angry Sanders supporters have taken to emailing and calling superdelegates at home, demanding that they change their allegiance from Clinton to Sanders, making threats, and issuing bad ratings at superdelegates’ business sites on Yelp. Tip: That’s not the best way to get people to change their minds.
Sanders says he wants to change a “rigged” election process, to make it more democratic. Fine. The first step would be to get rid of caucuses, the contests where Sanders had his biggest victories, because voting there can be so limiting. They are made for younger and the most enthusiastic voters (Sanders supporters), who have more time and energy to spend at caucus sites and not older voters (Clinton supporters), who might have more family responsibilities and don’t want to stand for hours. After all, in Nebraska, Sanders won big at the March 5 caucus, with a 14-point margin. In the purely cosmetic May 10 primary, where a lot more voters participated, Clinton won.
“Will Bernie Sanders burn it all down?” asked a column in the Washington Post.
It’s hard to say how this will unfold. As aggressive as the Sanders campaign’s rhetoric seems, it would still be consistent with a strategy that includes fighting as hard as possible until the last votes are counted, with the deliberate aim of maximizing whatever leverage Sanders can muster without causing a lasting rift. Such a strategy might include winning as many votes as possible before making a last-ditch effort to flip super-delegates, failing, and entering into unity talks in June that get resolved somehow before the convention, perhaps via platform and process concessions of some kind.
Or maybe things will be more contentious than that, all the way to the convention floor and beyond. Right now, the only person with any real inkling of how this will all go down may be Bernie Sanders.