Democratic convention got off to a rocky start, as Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz abruptly announced plans to step down just as delegates from around the country were arriving in Philadelphia on Sunday. Leaked emails had revealed Wasserman Schultz and her staff making derogatory comments about Bernie Sanders and apparently coordinating with the Hillary Clinton campaign to try to defeat him in the primaries.
Sanders supporters didn’t need much more proof that, as Sanders so often said on the campaign trail, “the system is rigged.”
On the other hand, Hillary supporters and the Washington reporters and party insiders who came to Philadelphia to witness what they’ve long seen as a foregone conclusion—Hillary’s nomination—were impatient to get on with it.
Were all these Sanders delegates going to protest and boo and mess up the display of party unity at the convention?, they asked each other on Monday. And who are these Bernie delegates anyway? Don’t they understand how bad Donald Trump is and do they really want to hurt Hillary’s chances to defeat Trump in the fall?
“I don’t understand how booing helps the mission to help elect a Democrat and defeat Donald Trump,” David Corn of Mother Jones said during a Monday morning press conference held by the Bernie Delegates Network.
“They would like to see party unity,” Karen Bernal, a Bernie delegate from Sacramento, responded. “But for the Bernie delegates, we utterly reject the system we’re operating in now.”
“Senator Sanders owes his success to the protest movement outside the party system,” Bernal added. “Black Lives Matter, Occupy . . . these are all movements that are resistance-based.”
So no one should be surprised that the people who worked hard for Bernie and saw him as the standard-bearer for progressive causes weren’t keen to fall in line—particularly when they felt abused and disrespected by the very party establishment their candidate had been running against all year.
The choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary’s corporate-friendly running-mate, in particular, did not sit well with the Bernie delegates.
“Kaine, like her, was a supporter of the TPP until 10 a.m. yesterday,” observed Jeff Cohen of Progressive Democrats of America and Roots Action. “So she’s chosen someone from the corporate wing of the party.”
Cohen, who co-founded the Bernie Delegate Network with Normon Solomon, said its straw polls showed that many delegates planned to protest Kaine when he speaks at the convention.
Others who spoke at the Bernie delegates’ press conference hastened to add that no one—including Bernie Sanders—could control what the delegates decided to do.
“We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do as delegates, because we’re here representing people who did not vote for her, said Manuel Salazar, a 29-year-old Sanders delegate from California. “We’re a little pissed off.”
Some more party-friendly delegates were less inclined to put up a fight. They floated the idea of a “safe state” strategy—urging those who live in swing states to vote for Hillary, while those who live in all-red or all-blue states might cast a protest vote. Cohen said:
“The goal of the network is to make our presence felt here this week, to show that the progressive community has not gone away, and we’ll be here in November."
Delegates wearing Robin Hood hats and “No TPP” stickers congregated early Monday in the grand ballroom at the downtown Philadelphia convention center, waiting for Bernie to show up and address them. Their chants filled the hall.
Killer Mike arrived first and fired up the crowd, pointing out its diversity: “This is what the Democratic Party should look like.”
Rosario Dawson jumped on stage and thanked the Sanders supporters. “Hillary Clinton is not a leader, she’s a follower,” Dawson declared—pointing out that Clinton had already been pushed to the left on the TPP and other issues, which, she said, showed the power of the movement.
The hall erupted as Bernie Sanders took the stage, declaring “the fight for racial, social, economic, and environmental justice continues.”
“We are not fringe players,” he told the adoring crowd. “We are setting the agenda for the future of America.”
Sanders pointed to platform victories on the minimum wage, trade agreements, and a 60 percent reduction in the number of superdelegates—Democratic Party delegates who are not bound to represent the will of the people at the convention, and who are seen as a vehicle for establishment control over the nomination.
Bernie got big cheers when he noted that Wasserman Schultz’s departure “opens up the possibility for new leadership of the Democratic Party.”
But when he pivoted to say, “We’ve got to defeat Donald Trump . . . and we’ve got to elect Hillary Clinton,” the crowd booed loudly and drowned him out with chants of “We want Bernie!” It took him some minutes to regain control of the room.
On Monday night in the convention hall, with the last strains of his powerful “America” ad fading behind him, Sanders strode on stage and gave a masterful speech to a hall filled with blue Bernie signs. He was greeted by thunderous applause that lasted so long, it took him many minutes to even begin. “I am honored,” he said, and then had to wait a long time before saying it again.
It was a poignant reminder of how far Sanders’s insurgent campaign and the whole movement behind him had come. Here, in the hall, the progressive insurgency looked powerful—not like a fringe group of trouble-makers, but like a near-majority of delegates and a force to be reckoned with.
Weeping delegates holding Bernie signs listened intently as Sanders laid out a serious argument about the future of the country, weaving together familiar points from his stump speech about inequality and economic justice and leading up to a full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton. The crowd ate up his speech. There were no boos this time.
He and Hillary had their differences, Sanders said: “That’s what democracy is about.”
“Elections come and go,” he reminded his supporters.
“But the struggle of the people to create a government that represents all of us . . . that struggle continues.”
Sanders argued that “any objective observer” would choose to elect Hillary—because of her likely Supreme Court choices, her understanding of the science of climate change, her belief in expanding access to health care and education and economic opportunity.
And Sanders noted that he and Hillary had recently come together—on a strikingly progressive Democratic Party platform, and, in particular, on a plank proposing free college tuition at state schools for families that earn less than $125,000 per year.
Claiming these victories, Sanders left the stage on a high note.
“Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding President and I am proud to stand with her tonight,” he declared.
The mood in the hall when he left was elated, not defeated. That, in itself, was a victory.