According to Politico, House Democrats booed Bernie Sanders during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, July 6. They would like him to officially end his presidential campaign and were frustrated that, in response to calls to endorse Hillary Clinton, he stated that his goal “is to transform America,” not just “to win elections.” This reaction was unsurprising; as Politico noted, “House Democrats overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton during the presidential primary fight,” and the idea that winning elections might be a means rather than an end “plays better on the campaign trail than in front of a roomful of elected officials.” Even one of Sanders’ few congressional supporters during the primary, Raul Grijalva, has argued that a Sanders endorsement of Clinton has “got to happen prior to the [Democratic] convention.”
What doesn’t make any sense at all, however, is the argument many of Sanders’ detractors have been advancing for quite some time about why they think he should drop out. The idea that “he’s squandering the movement he built” by withholding his endorsement (advanced by a “senior Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity”) is obviously incorrect, but has been repeated over and over again by numerous journalists and pundits, including:
- Gabriel Debenedetti and Sahil Kapur, who penned pieces entitled “Sanders loses convention leverage” (for Politico) and “Sanders’ Long Refusal to Endorse Clinton Hurts His Leverage” (for Bloomberg), respectively, on June 17;
- Joan Walsh, who argued in The Nation on June 27 that “Sanders may…be setting himself up for less influence in Philadelphia, rather than more;”
- Jamelle Bouie, who contended in Slate on June 28 that “the leverage [Sanders] held at the end of the primary just isn’t there anymore;”
- Stuart Rothenberg, who wrote in The Washington Post on June 30 that “Sanders is not yet irrelevant[, but] he reached a point weeks ago when his stubbornness became counterproductive;” and
- Joshua Green, who asserted in Bloomberg on July 7 that “Sanders increasingly looks like an afterthought who’s squandering an historic opportunity.”
Their arguments boil down to the following: The more Sanders waits to endorse Clinton, the more he alienates her team, encouraging them to ignore parts of his platform that they’d be otherwise inclined to support and to rely on other politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, for progressive credibility. Sanders’ “first and most prominent supporters have jumped off the bandwagon, congratulating and in some cases endorsing Clinton,” Debenedetti notes, and Bouie adds that Sanders has lost his chance to “claim credit” for the “natural movement to Clinton among Democratic primary voters” that has already begun to take place. Bouie believes Sanders could have taken “a starring role in the campaign against Trump,” opening “the doors to lasting influence,” but in the words of Rothenberg, “Clinton doesn’t need Sanders anymore.” If “Sanders delivers a late or halfhearted endorsement,” Walsh argues, Clinton may even turn to Republicans for votes.
Yet these claims are belied by recent events. As Jeff Stein observed in Vox, the draft Democratic party platform, released in full on Friday, July 1, “shows Sanders winning on at least six signature issues that reflect long-held goals of his movement…on top of victories Sanders [had] already won over the platform.” Bouie is right to point out that “Team Sanders…lost out” in platform discussions about “more contentious” issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and environmental regulation, and Green isn’t far off when he says the platform is “a purely symbolic document,” but it’s also undoubtedly the case, as Stein notes, that the party is still “moving [Sanders’] way on several key issues.” Though Politico’s unnamed senior Democrat and Green ignored it, Clinton also just announced a new plan to make college free for families making under $125,000 a year, a proposal that isn’t quite as good as Sanders’ but represents a striking reversal from her earlier campaign rhetoric.
The reason for these concessions is simple: Clinton wants Sanders’ endorsement. Yes, some Sanders supporters already seem poised to vote for Clinton, but even they often have negative perceptions of her and are unlikely to volunteer and/or donate in the same way they would have if Sanders was the nominee. Clinton knows that generating the enthusiasm and votes necessary to beat Donald Trump in November would be easier with Sanders on board and the possibility that he won’t be is the best bargaining chip Sanders has got.
If winning more concessions from Clinton is a key objective for Sanders, he’d be crazy to give that chip up prematurely. It’s hard to believe that Sanders would have secured the gains he already has if he had followed the pundits’ advice and tried to ingratiate himself to Clinton.
At the same time, winning concessions from Clinton is not Sanders’ – or Grijalva’s, or many other Sanders supporters’ – only or even primary goal. Sanders has explicitly prioritized making “certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly,” as Bouie pointed out, and Sanders has both said that he will vote for Clinton in November and suggested that an endorsement may be imminent. That position isn’t unreasonable; though the differences between Trump and Clinton are often overstated, Clinton is undoubtedly the lesser evil facing those who believe in power-balancing policy. But it also deprives Sanders and his voters of a whole lot of bargaining power.
In fact, Clinton can court a growing list of Republicans not because of the delayed endorsement by Sanders that Walsh has feared, but for precisely the opposite reason: as one Republican strategist has explained, many Sanders supporters “have already shown, by and large, that they’ll fall in line and back” Clinton despite policy positions they dislike. The loss of bargaining power that pledging to vote for Clinton entails is also apparent in pressure from Wall Street about Clinton’s choice of a running mate: “moderate Democrats in the financial services industry argue that Sanders voters will come on board anyway and that Clinton does not need to pick [Elizabeth] Warren to help her win.” A commitment to lesser-of-evilsism is indisputably accompanied by a loss of leverage in situations in which you and the candidate you’re backing disagree.
Some Sanders supporters have already decided that a united front against Trump is more important than that leverage. Others believe that fixing a Democratic party that is seriously broken is a more pressing concern and that the concessions Sanders has won, while not meaningless, are very different than binding commitments Clinton would be likely to adhere to if elected; we wish Sanders had maximized his leverage by seriously entertaining a third-party run. Sanders, on the other hand, has been attempting to balance his attention to both goals, to influence the Democratic party platform as much as possible without materially affecting the Democrats’ chances in the fall.
It’s perfectly fine to disagree with his relative weighting of priorities. But let’s stop pretending that he’s making a strategic blunder. Sanders knows exactly what he’s doing, and despite assertions to the contrary from media and “top Democrats,” he has actually done it quite well.