Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign operation has been anything but subtle in suggesting that now that her win in the New York primary Tuesday has made her nomination at the Democratic convention pretty much inevitable, it’s time for the Bernie Sanders campaign to die with dignity.
Let’s get on with the laudatory memorial service, the campaign seems to be saying, and then the estate sale, in which Sanders’ cadre of fervent and largely young supporters can be snapped up for pennies on the dollar.
But Sanders, to the Clinton campaign’s frustration, is not bowing to this bit of conventional wisdom because the Sanders campaign is not a typical campaign. It is, to use Sanders’ oft-repeated word, a “revolution.”
Getting a geriatric democratic socialist into the White House was never the goal; it was a means to an end. Sanders is not the match that lit a progressive populist flame. The match was the unrest with Democratic Party politics that revealed itself in the Occupy movement, in the refusal of the people who turned out for President Obama in 2008 to rescue congressional Democratic candidates from the tea-party insurgency in 2010, and in the millions who rallied behind an effort to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the presidential campaign before Sanders felt the burn himself and picked up the mantle.
With this driving Sanders, there is every reason for him to continue his campaign into the convention despite what the delegate math says.
Clinton is not dealing with a candidate who can be bought off with a promise of a Cabinet post but with a movement that has a set of much tougher demands that cut to the core of where the party stands.
These are college graduates who see bank executives insulated from the consequences of their actions that led to the 2008 economic crash, but who themselves have no insulation from their crushing student debt loads. These are workers who wonder why corporations earning record-high profits (and paying obscenely low taxes on those profits) cannot afford to pay them a living wage for their work. These are the people who wonder why our health care debate is limited to shifting from one expensive Rube Goldberg maze to another, or why the economic security of senior citizens should be a bargaining chip in so-called “grand bargains” by politicians who have no idea what it is like to live on a Social Security check.
Perhaps most critically, these are the people who have had it with political parties whose attention, and by implication their policies, have been purchased by “the millionaires and billionaires” who Sanders regularly rails against. In their view, the Democratic Party is at best marginally less an organ of the rich and powerful than the Republican Party.
But as far as many Sanders voters are concerned, many of the decisions that have ended up causing them economic pain — from the trade deals of the last 30 years to financial services deregulation to the loopholes that allow the rich and powerful to avoid paying taxes — have been bipartisan affairs.
Clinton faces this discontent as a uniquely weak candidate. The Real Clear Politics average of polls in mid-April gave Clinton an average unfavorable rating of 54 percent. This would be devastating for a presidential candidate who has been on the national stage as long as Clinton has, except for the fact that the Republican party is poised to choose a nominee, Donald Trump, with even worse negatives.
But saying “at least I’m not as bad as Donald Trump” is not the stuff of a winning general election campaign. Clinton is going to have to come to terms with a growing movement, with Sanders as its figurehead, that has had it with Democratic Party business as usual.
That starts with the issue with which she is having the most trouble with Sanders supporters — money in politics. (Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage explores this in more detail.) It is not enough for Clinton to challenge Sanders, as she did in her CNN New York debate, to come up with examples of how particular big-dollar donors of hers have influenced specific policies. Everyone knows the quid pro quo is more subtle than that.
She may never be fully credible as a reformer of what many people consider a “dollar-ocracy,” but she has to try. So does the entire Democratic Party, if it is to repair its reputation as the party of the common people.