So what’s up with this Bernie Sanders dude? Why hasn’t he endorsed Hillary Clinton yet? Doesn’t he realize, as a range of pundits have pointed out, that he’s losing his leverage and hurting her chances of defeating Donald Trump?
These pundits notwithstanding, Sanders appears to believe, to the contrary, that he’s not losing leverage—indeed, he’s gaining it—and that he’s not hurting but helping her chances of prevailing in November.
And he’s right.
If the draft of the Democratic platform that the party released last Friday is any indication, we should all be so lucky as to be losing leverage the way Bernie supposedly is. The platform includes a number of provisions that are distinctly his. On finance and banking, for instance, it calls for a new version of Glass-Steagall, which kept banks from making depositors liable for their speculative investments; it calls for an end to bankers sitting on the national or regional Federal Reserve boards, and for appointing “regulators and officials who are not beholden to the industries they regulate”; it demands an end to golden parachutes for executives appointed to governmental posts; it seeks the establishment of postal banking to serve the “unbanked” poor who can’t afford checking accounts; and it calls for the creation of a financial transaction tax.
Clinton had long supported some of these proposals, but others, like postal banking, had not crossed her radar, while still others—a new Glass Steagall and a financial transaction tax—she had explicitly opposed (she does back a tax on high-frequency trading). It’s also likely that the criticism Sanders leveled at Clinton during the primaries for her speeches to Goldman Sachs were a factor in prodding Clinton to take the more critical approach toward Wall Street that the platform draft embodies.
On some particulars—most notably, putting the party on record against the death penalty and in favor of a $15 minimum wage—the platform also reflects Sanders’s perspectives. On other issues—a ban on fracking, the establishment of a carbon tax and of universal Medicare—the Sanders forces were defeated, although the draft platform does call for the establishment of a public option that Obamacare recipients could choose.
Of the various platform commitments that the Sanders forces failed to win, the one that Sanders himself has made clear he is most inclined to continue fighting for is his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He knows that a decisive majority of Democratic members of Congress agree with his stance, that Hillary Clinton has been compelled to embrace his position, and that party activists are heavily opposed to the TPP, while the chief resistance to his position comes from President Obama. Sanders also understands that any lingering ambiguity about Clinton’s opposition to the TPP hurts her and the Democrats in the Rust Belt states where Donald Trump’s promises to re-do or scrap our various trade deals have won him a receptive following. It’s in Clinton’s interest that Sanders prevail on this issue. As for Obama, one hopes he understands that, as much as he believes it’s important to his legacy that the TPP be enacted, it’s far more important to his legacy that Clinton defeat Trump—and that her carrying the Rust Belt would go a long way to ensure that.
What would actually hurt Clinton would be a convention debate on the TPP in which Obama’s position prevails—it would feed right into one of Trump’s favored narratives. Sanders’s leverage is strongest now in getting the platform committee, which meets this coming weekend, to adopt the kind of compromise that the drafting committee agreed to on the financial transaction tax—which it endorsed, while acknowledging that a range of views existed within the party on this matter. Failing that, such a deal is still possible any time before the platform reaches the floor of the convention late this month. And that might well be when Sanders chooses to offer his formal endorsement of Clinton.
Still, it’s hard to see what the Sanders forces could have won in the platform process by virtue of his endorsement of Clinton that they didn’t win anyway—or, conversely, what defeats would have turned to victory had he endorsed her. Would the Clinton appointees then have agreed to “Medicare for All”? A carbon tax? It’s hardly likely they would have budged on such items no matter what Sanders said or did; and Sanders himself must surely know that these are bridges too far for today’s Democratic Party. In focusing, as he has, on opposing the TPP, he’s selected the one bridge that most Democratic elected officials would actually be relieved to see the party cross.
It’s important to note that four of the five Sanders appointees to the platform drafting committee voted to approve the document, despite its omission of various Sanders planks. While lamenting the absence of those planks, the Sanders campaign has rightly hailed the platform as the most progressive the party has seen in decades. I’m confident Sanders will do the same at the convention when he endorses Clinton.
I also believe that the pressure he’s exerted on the Clinton forces actually strengthens her in the general election, by compelling her to take a tougher stance on Wall Street and—particularly if his TPP plank passes—on trade than she otherwise would have.
It’s clear from recent polling that a majority of Sanders backers have decided they’ll be voting for Clinton in November, just as it’s clear from the assurances he’s given Joe Biden and Harry Reid that Sanders will endorse her no later than the convention. By playing his string out to the end or close to it, by being able to claim credit for pushing both Clinton and the party to more progressive stances, he makes it easier for those among his supporters still on the fence about November to give him credence when he does endorse Clinton. There may be some bitter-enders in his ranks who end up voting for Green candidate Jill Stein or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson (though going from Medicare for All to Medicare for None is something of a leap), but the vast majority will understand the necessity of a Clinton victory or be persuaded by Sanders’s endorsement and how much he’s won, or both.
Has Sanders’s hesitation created the space for Elizabeth Warren to become Hillary’s left-wing helper? It has, just as it was his candidacy that compelled the Clinton forces to understand their need for Warren’s support. Does that mean Clinton won’t welcome the opportunity to campaign alongside Sanders this fall? Of course not. As she needs Warren, so she’ll need Sanders, and she’ll welcome them both.