Leverage vs. Letting Go

The California and New Jersey primaries have finally come and gone, and Hillary Clinton has claimed her place in history as the first presumptive female presidential nominee of a major political party. Her overwhelming victory in New Jersey was expected, her comfortable victory in California was not, but even before the votes were counted on the west coast the campaign had moved into the reconciliation phase, where Democratic leaders from the president on down were maneuvering to bring Bernie Sanders around to the realization that it is time for the party to come together.

For several weeks, the Sanders campaign has been telegraphing two mutually exclusive messages. The candidate has stated emphatically that he will do everything he can to defeat Donald Trump in the fall, while also saying that he will contest the nomination all the way to the convention regardless of the damage it may do to the Democratic Party. In recent weeks, the logic behind that second claim has become strained, with the champion of voting rights hanging his hopes on elite superdelegates while arguing that nothing would be settled until either he or Hillary had clinched the nomination with earned delegates, an outcome he knew was mathematically impossible.

The way you view Sanders’ determination to stay in the race probably depends on how you interpret his motives. If you see him as being so invested in his campaign that he has lost sight of the fact that he cannot win the nomination, then his actions seem selfish and destructive. But if you see him as the leader of a movement, then it seems entirely rational for him to have perpetuated his candidacy well past the point where the nomination was attainable. Movements win victories incrementally and over time, and the Sanders movement doesn’t have to claim the presidency to be successful. Rather, it needs to grow as large as possible to maximize its influence over the political agenda. From this perspective, why not compete until there are no more contests? California was the big prize at the end of the road, the chance to pick up a huge stock of delegates from a progressive electorate. For weeks, he has needed to give California progressives a reason to vote. Hence the tortuous and seemingly counterproductive argument about why he would stay in through the convention.

That argument is no longer necessary now that primary balloting is almost complete. Sanders will probably continue his campaign through next Tuesday’s Washington, DC contest in order to complete the circuit. But this week will be devoted to the dance of reconciliation. And that’s where things will get interesting. The biggest payoff of Sanders’ campaign still lies ahead in the form of the leverage he holds during the reconciliation process. Hillary Clinton needs his supporters in November, so she has to listen to him as the movement leader who can deliver them. Bernie Sanders wants the movement he has built to continue, so he needs to listen to her as the party’s presumptive nominee. That’s why I have long believed that Sanders and Clinton will ultimately resolve their differences. Their interests converge.

There are any number of things Bernie could request in return for his support of Hillary. He could demand a more open Democratic primary process that reduces or eliminates superdelegates or permits independents to vote in primaries nationwide. He could demand a platform that reflects his key concerns and the concerns of his supporters, like campaign finance reform, banking reform, universal healthcare and public education, and a $15 minimum wage. He could influence the choice of a vice presidential nominee or demand Clinton make tangible gestures to assure that a Clinton presidency would not be heavily influenced by Wall Street.

Hillary in turn will ask for Bernie’s wholehearted endorsement, for him to make the case to his enthusiasts that she is an acceptable vehicle for progressive change. The Sanders campaign gave voice to the desire for substantial reform of the party and the country, and Hillary will need Bernie by her side this fall to appeal to voters hungry for a new direction. Hillary is a poor fit to this anti-establishment political moment and nothing can decouple her from the status quo with which she has been associated for decades, so she needs him to lend credibility to the argument that a creature of the establishment can also be an agent of progress.

By competing through California, Bernie has demonstrated the nationwide appeal of progressive ideas. He has captivated a generation of voters and touched a nerve. But there is no advantage to pressing his candidacy beyond next Tuesday. To campaign against Hillary until the convention would be a disservice to his supporters and to the movement he has mobilized, an act of stubbornness that places ambition above principle. Only by relinquishing his electoral goals can he parlay his gains into meaningful achievements for the progressive movement. Bernie will not become president. But he can advance his agenda and maximize his leverage over the Democratic Party if he recognizes that it’s time to let go.