Late last night, when I was trying to make sense of why anyone would be surprised with the entirely predictable results of the New York primary, I said that Bernie and Hillary now face an end game where their interests overlap. Let’s use the light of a new day to reflect on that a little bit, because the way this energetically contested nomination process ends is and always has been the most important matter facing the Democratic Party and its voters.
Bernie Sanders is running a movement campaign and he has tapped into a deep well of anger and frustration with the political system and how it favors the interests of those wealthy enough to dominate it. He did not invent this movement, resonant as it is with the critique of netroots progressives and Occupy Wall Street, but he did galvanize it and give it a dynamic mainstream voice. It’s the reason he plays to large and passionate crowds and can raise millions from small dollar contributors who believe in his message and keep him going even when he suffers setbacks like he did yesterday in New York. His success propelling the progressive movement has been the story of the campaign on the Democratic side. He has driven Hillary Clinton to assume a much more progressive posture than she had before the primaries began. He has forced Democratic Party elites to acknowledge that their base voters, especially their younger voters, are restless for a change in how the party does business. Bernie has called on his supporters to stage a political revolution and they have responded.
But to win a presidential nomination you need a broad coalition, and we have known since Super Tuesday that the Sanders campaign wasn’t quite there. He has performed well in caucus states where intensity factors heavily into results, in states with limited diversity, in open primary states where he could draw on his appeal to unaffiliated voters, and in states where younger voters turned out in large numbers. He has performed poorly everywhere else, getting shut out in the South with its large share of African American voters and in every large industrial state save Michigan. Hillary’s coalition may be less intense but it is wide ranging, and it’s allowing her to win the states where the delegates are. There are still technically enough delegates remaining for Sanders to overtake Clinton, but they are in large, complex states like Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey that look like states where he has struggled. And if Sanders cannot overtake Clinton in the earned delegate count, there is no reason for superdelegates to flock to his side.
I don’t doubt that Bernie Sanders wants to be president. He may even believe there is still a path to the nomination. But we are nearing the point where the dwindling number of remaining contests will force the issue of how he can transition out of the campaign without undermining everything that campaign has accomplished. For Democrats, this is what the early summer months will be about.
Bernie is well positioned to take his message to a broader electorate and further his cause. He will have the resources to put his mark on the fall campaign, as he will arrive at the Philadelphia convention with a large enough contingent of delegates to exert influence on the party platform. More importantly, he will arrive with the support of millions of people who believe in his message and rallied to his candidacy, voters Hillary will need on her side in November. If exit polls are to be believed, she will inherit many but hardly all of Bernie’s supporters. To bring in the balance of those voters and unite the party around her candidacy, she will need to find a way to reach voters who believe she is the poison fruit of the system that Bernie wants to upend. And she can best reach those voters if she can reach their leader.
So it is in Hillary’s interest to begin a dialogue with Bernie’s campaign. She needs to find out what it would take to get them to be open to her candidacy, what it would take to get Sanders’ endorsement and active support, along with the endorsement of progressive icon Elizabeth Warren, who would be second only to Sanders himself in telegraphing progressive acceptance of Hillary for America. She will find that it will take more than words. Hillary has a trust problem with progressives, and will need to signal through her actions that she understands and is sympathetic to Sanders’ critique of the political system and that she is ready to confront that system from the inside. If I were advising Hillary, I would urge her to name a progressive economic team at the convention and promise to bring them with her to Washington—a team Sanders supporters could get excited about even if they never find excitement in the candidate herself. Hillary is a cautious politician who does not like to foreclose possibilities, so she may be reluctant to make a bold progressive statement like this. But she was also Secretary of State. She knows how to negotiate.
Fortunately for Democrats, many months remain to sort this out. We may not see overtures between the campaigns until the voting is over in June, although a poor Sanders showing in next week’s contests could accelerate things. Either way, the period leading up to the convention gives both sides an opportunity to explore their mutual self-interest and figure out a way for Hillary to embrace Bernie’s cause and get a hearing from his supporters. Unlike the way-too-long build-up to the Republican Convention, which will be marked by delegate challenges and infighting over arcane convention procedures, the intermission between primaries and convention will be an important and potentially fruitful time for the Democratic Party, when the seeds of its future could be planted.
I have long regarded the Sanders effort not as a quixotic attempt to change the world or a hopeless McGovernesque insurgency, but as an important step in the longterm process of reorganizing the Democratic Party around progressive values, a process with roots as old as the Howard Dean campaign of 2003. Movements are long-term propositions; revolutions can take time to build. In the range and depth of voters he has mobilized, Bernie has succeeded well beyond what most observers believed was possible when his campaign began with a brief and disheveled press conference outside the Capitol. If we view what he is doing through the prism of movement politics, his campaign doesn’t look like McGovern in 1972 as much as it resembles Ronald Reagan’s vigorous challenge to Gerald Ford four years later. Reagan, the movement conservative, took Ford all the way to the convention before succumbing to a political establishment resilient enough to quell the revolution—momentarily. Like Bernie today, movement conservatives in 1976 hadn’t forged a broad enough coalition to win it all until evangelical voters provided the final piece of the puzzle during the Carter administration. And we all know what happened four years later.
Bernie’s movement campaign is a monumental accomplishment and has earned him influence in the Democratic Party. How he chooses to use that influence will help shape the prospects for Hillary’s fall campaign and the future of the progressive movement. Reconciling the interests of the two opposing camps may not be easy and will require talking, listening and setting aside the animosity that inevitably accompanies a hard fought presidential contest. But I would bet on success. There is too much mutual self-interest between the parties to assume otherwise.