Harold Meyerson writes that Bernie Sanders has used the leverage from his strong primary performance in a way that will ultimately help Hillary Clinton prevail in November.
According to Meyerson, the platform unveiled earlier this week “includes a number of provisions that are distinctly” Sanders. These range from “a new version of Glass-Steagall” and the “establishment of postal ttlenking” to a $15 minimum wage and new Wall Street reforms.
It’s certainly true that the platform reflects some of Sanders’s policy positions, but, from the point of view of electoral politics, it’s also worth asking—so what? How does any of this help Clinton’s chances of winning in November, above and beyond the already high likelihood that she will in fact win in November? According to Meyerson, Clinton is strengthened because the platform language will compel “her to take a tougher stance on Wall Street and—particularly if his TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] plank passes—on trade than she otherwise would have.”
There seem to be two things wrong with this argument. First, Clinton is already tough on Wall Street—for example, she has talked about the need for them to pay their fair share in taxes and has pledged to extend Dodd-Frank to cover big banks and the shadow banking system. Also, she’s already expressed skepticism about the TPP. It’s hard to imagine that simple language in a party platform will push her further in Sanders’s direction. But even if it does, what reason do we have to believe that voters will actually notice? When it comes to a battle between Trump and Clinton this fall, how many voters are going to be swayed by a slightly tougher stance on Wall Street and trade? Perhaps a few will, but certainly not in any number that will be decisive. Polls already show that most of Sanders’s supporters have begun to move in Clinton’s direction.
In fact, I can think of a much better way than language in the party platform for Sanders to convince his supporters to embrace Clinton. How about endorsing her? How about not waging a pointless floor fight at the convention? How about not spending the past two or three months accusing her of being a sellout to progressive values while refusing to acknowledge the historic nature of her victory? How about merely conceding defeat?
The notion that Sanders’s continuing petulance and the cultivation of his hardline supporters’ mistrust of Clinton can be outweighed by language in a party platform that few Democrats will read seems fantastical at best. Moreover, it’s very hard to look at the positions that Clinton has taken this year—on guns, on student loans, on trade, on Wall Street, on family and paid leave, to name a few—and not conclude that she had already been moving more firmly to the left.
But let’s put that aside for a second and consider the nature of Sanders’s platform wins. Quick: raise your hand if you read the 2012 or 2008 Democratic Party platform. These kinds of documents are important statements of a party’s ideological views, but that’s about all they are. Without the political power to implement them they are basically meaningless.
The simple fact is that if Sanders wants to see Democrats pass campaign finance reform, raise the minimum wage, institute a carbon tax, and make free trade agreements fairer, then he should be working to elect Democrats to Congress. The surest way to get a President Hillary Clinton to embrace more progressive reforms is to have a Democratic Congress that is able to hold her feet to the fire. Without Democratic control of the House of Representatives, there is no chance of progressive reform. In fact, to the extent that legislation does make it through a GOP-controlled Congress, it will be tilted to the right in order to gain Republican support. Sanders might have gotten more progressive language in the Democratic platform, but I can assure him—Paul Ryan doesn’t care.
Rather than spend the last couple months on a fruitless effort to win the Democratic nomination, Sanders should have spent his time raising money and campaigning for Democrats in swing districts. He could have done more to support candidates in state legislatures in order to overturn GOP control of state governments, which is historically high. He could have been offering more support to liberal primary challengers, like John Fetterman, a Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate, who consistently sounded a Sanders-like message of economic populism in the state’s April party primary. While Sanders has boosted a few candidates to date, he didn’t lift a finger to help Fetterman.
For Sanders the revolution has always been, I believe, about him and his own presidential aspirations, rather than the fate of the party he is seeking to lead.
The problem is that Sanders views the Democratic Party not as his home, but as a rival to his socialist ambitions. When Clinton conceded the Democratic race to Obama in 2008, she did so in part because she knew that victory in November would be the most effective way to follow through on the issues that she ran on during the campaign (that set her up for a presidential run eight years in the future). Sanders, instead, seems to view the Democratic Party with suspicion and even contempt. Considering the amount of money he’s raised and the young people that he’s energized and brought into the political process this year, he could have used his leverage to steer his supporters toward helping elect more progressive Democrats to elected office up and down the ticket. Instead, he used the leverage they gave him to add more language to a party platform that will be quickly forgotten once Democratic Party delegates leave Philadelphia later this month.
That Sanders views this as a win—or the most effective way to leverage the support he has received this year—is the saddest possible coda to his presidential campaign.