Packed with establishment.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Democratic Party Is Pushing Away Its Future

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

The 2016 McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Celebration in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Friday night was a surreal event -- a cross between a fundraising dinner, a rally and a hockey game. Organized by the state's Democratic establishment, its goal was to demonstrate the party's unity despite a close contest between its two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It succeeded to an extent, but showed that the party may be sacrificing its future in a pragmatic quest for immediate results.

The event, named after two democratic senators -- Thomas J. McIntyre, who served in the 1960s and 70s, and current office holder Jeanne Shaheen -- is the state Democratic party's biggest traditional fundraising gala. It started as a dinner event to support John F. Kennedy and has featured most major presidential candidates over the years. This year it was the biggest yet, with 6,000 people in attendance, according to state party chairman Raymond Buckley. 

Some of these attendees sat around dinner tables on the floor of the Verizon Arena, home of the Manchester Monarchs, an American Hockey League team. They had paid between $250 and $1,000 per plate. The rest, who had paid $25 to $50 for their tickets, were seated in the stands. Clinton and Sanders fans took their seats on opposite sides of the arena, and, like any fans of opposing hockey teams, they tried to outshout each other for most of the evening. Each side was equipped with inflatable clappers; Sanders supporters had plain orange ones, but Clinton fans had gotten their hands on cooler blue and white ones that lit up from the inside with LED lamps. "Super PACs paid for these lights!" someone on the Bernie side yelled jealously when the Clinton advantage was revealed.

Clinton's was very much the home team.

The gala was an unabashed showcase for the Democratic establishment. Former state party chairmen and elected officials took the stage one after another, never missing a chance to point out that the Democrats stood united despite any differences they might have. Yet the establishment has made no secret of aligning with Clinton. Leading state Democrats -- Senator Shaheen, Governor Maggie Hassan and Representative Carol Shea-Porter -- all reiterated their endorsements of Clinton, saying they respected Sanders but preferred a candidate with a proven record of getting things done.

The main message was implicit in the speeches: It's OK to support Sanders for now, but when he loses the nomination, won't you come out to support Hillary, too?

The unity talk wasn't all hollow. At the entrance to the arena, Clinton supporters were lined up with signs, jumping up and down in the post-snowstorm chill and chanting "Hillary." The chanting intensified when a group of Sanders backers, wearing highly visible pins, passed by. "We like her too," one of the Bernie people smiled disarmingly as he walked to the entrance. The Clintonites were all smiles in response.

When Sanders himself got up on the stage, he got applause from both sides of the arena when she said, "Even on our worst day, we're 100 times better than any of the Republicans on their best day!"

Yet there is a deep divide running through the liberal rank-and-file. The Clinton side applauded National Democratic Committee chair Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz when she delivered her unity message. From the Sanders side, boos were heard. The Bernie base has a grudge against the party machine: Many say it's trying to sink their candidate, sometimes by questionable means.

In New Hampshire, the Sanders crowd is less demographically uniform than the youthful crowds I saw in Iowa. Next to me on the Sanders stand, Casey Chapman, 23, and Barbara Carbonneau, 79, sat side by side, earnestly discussing the senator's program. Carbonneau, who said she'd been voting Democrat for half of her life, agreed with the younger woman that, as Chapman said, "Bernie is actually more pragmatic than Hillary. He sets these lofty goals, such as a $15 minimum wage or health care for all, and everyone knows these things will be minimized, but asking for more will get us further." Chapman, for her part, nodded when Carbonneau said she liked Sanders for being "his own person, not dependent on other people or super PACs."

Yet when Sanders, who spoke before Clinton, was done, Carbonneau remained while Chapman, along with dozens other young people, got up and left. At the beginning of the gala, there were visibly more Sanders people present. Five minutes after he left the stage, the numbers became just about even, and the people remaining on the Sanders side were mainly older, diehard democrats who will vote for the party no matter what final choice it makes.

The senator's younger backers were no longer around when Hassan and Shaheen extolled Clinton's virtues. Nor did they linger to hear Clinton herself, who, as in Iowa, tailored her speech to the state she was in, making informed references to local causes and leaders and to her uplifting experience of coming from behind and winning New Hampshire in 2008. They only wanted Sanders's stubbornly unchanged, un-localized stump speech -- because to them it is a message of change, the word I hear most often from these people in their teens and 20s. Clinton's superb political art and the loyalty of professional politicians to her deliver the opposite message. The Democratic affiliation doesn't mean much to a large number of Sanders backers: Like him, they are somewhat reluctant fellow travelers. The party is not their home.

By so openly declaring their allegiance to Clinton, with her bird-in-hand approach, the Democratic Party's leaders are pushing away the people who could have been its future. What they think of as unity, those attracted to Sanders' idealism see as another sign that the game is rigged. 

I'm not sure all the endorsements will help Clinton much. Sanders has a strong lead in the New Hampshire polls and statistician Nate Silver gives him a 99 percent chance of winning here. What they mostly do is signal to a new generation of possible supporters that they will only be welcome if they accept politics and usual and learn to settle for less.

This tends to happen to people when they grow up, but it's not necessarily a good platform for true unity. It would have been wiser for the party hierarchy to show more impartiality, but the functionaries and politicians ignore the opening Sanders gives them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net