Sanders’ struggle comes to an end—or does it?
Last night, Hillary Clinton claimed victory in the Democratic presidential primary. The Associated Press actually calculated that she’d crossed the delegate threshold on Monday, but a threat had still loomed: if Bernie Sanders could win the lucrative state of California, it would put some wind in his sails, even without the overall arithmetic in his favor. Fortunately for Clinton, that didn’t happen. She won the Golden State by a yawning thirteen-point gulf, and when she declared before a screaming crowd that “we’ve reached a milestone,” the Clintonian rule of the generous “we” meaning the singular “I” applied. This time, she really had done it.
Last night wasn’t a total fizzle for Bernie Sanders. He continued to show prowess at fanning those old reformist prairie fires in the American interior, winning North Dakota and Montana. But when he obstinately refused to end his campaign with a cry of “the struggle continues,” the necessary question was: “the struggle for what?” Sanders originally entered the race to nudge the frontrunner leftwards. With Clinton having offered her (asterisk-ornamented) support for a $15 minimum wage and disowned her own husband’s crime legislation, he’s unquestionably succeeded, all the while mounting a genuine electoral challenge that nobody thought possible. Surely even Sanders knew his odds of being the nominee were slender, so what more does he want?
Perhaps he’s been seduced by the pheromone that draws in so many also-ran candidates, where they hear the screaming crowds and read the splashy placards and come to conclude that the math must be wrong, the turnaround must be just ahead, because why else would all those people be there rooting for them? There’s probably some of that, but Bernie also doesn’t seem like the sort who buys his own hype. The more likely factor is that Sanders feels genuinely aggrieved by the way this race was conducted. Hence the hardening in tone of his campaign last month. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damned emails” became “Democrats and delegates are going to have to take a hard look at [them].” The Clinton Foundation was now a “problem” and a potential “conflict of interest.”
Sanders dropped his avuncular optimism for the same reason the UK’s Brexit campaign went negative: the anything-goes approach of the other side. Sanders has been accused by Clinton of prioritizing gun manufacturers over Sandy Hook victims. He’s struggled against a biased Democratic National Committee helmed by a Clinton acolyte, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. His debates were relegated to Saturday nights and his access to a party voter database was pulled. For some reason, four years is always enough to induce amnesia over just how dirty the Clinton machine plays. This is the same coterie that attempted to change the rules for the Michigan and Florida primaries in 2008 to benefit Hillary, and that dropped racial innuendoes against Barack Obama. Obama won cleanly over Clinton; Sanders won’t, but that hasn’t killed his appetite for revenge.
The Sanders campaign has become a populist bum-rush not just against the corporations and “the bankehs on Wuhl Street,” but his own party, which now seems to be governed by the same special interests and dirty tricks he despises. No surprise, then, that he recently endorsed Wasserman Schultz’s primary challenger. As for Clinton, the Sanders campaign insists it simply wants to wait until the superdelegates are counted at the Democratic convention next month. That’s a reasonable objection, I suppose, but it also presumes Sanders will somehow be able to overcome his daunting disadvantage among superdelegates. The only way that might happen is if Clinton is indicted over her inappropriate use of a private email server. Given how nasty this race has become, Team Sanders is probably praying for that very outcome.
Short of that, Clinton essentially has the primary wrapped up. But she also has on her hands an angrier and more high-profile Sanders, willing to gin up the left and go renegade against Democrats who have wronged him. We’ve gotten accustomed to blood on the Republican side, but the Democrats may still be warring come convention time, too.
Matt Purple is the deputy editor of Rare Politics.