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Bernie's Next Crusade

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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His hour upon the nation's biggest political stage is almost up. The Democratic nomination is receding from his reach. And a 74-year-old doesn't have a lot of presidential runs in his future. So it's time for Senator Bernie Sanders to take stock: What does he want?

Yes, yes, everyone knows -- a revolution. But Sanders is not Lenin and this isn't Russia circa 1917. So what does he really want? He has surprised us all, himself surely included, with the depth and breadth of his support in the Democratic primary. As a result, he has valuable leverage, afforded by millions of votes, and a trove of digital addresses, afforded by his supporters' passion.

Sanders has a few months left to take full advantage of those assets. For himself, he'll want a prime-time slot for a convention speech and a serious role as a surrogate on the campaign trail. For his followers, he'll no doubt have the opportunity to insert some pet peeves into a Democratic platform, for whatever that's worth.

In a statement issued on Tuesday night, after losing four of five states to Clinton, Sanders said he's going "to fight for a progressive party platform that calls for a $15 an hour minimum wage, an end to our disastrous trade policies, a Medicare-for-all health care system, breaking up Wall Street financial institutions, ending fracking in our country, making public colleges and universities tuition free and passing a carbon tax so we can effectively address the planetary crisis of climate change."

Clinton will take what she wants from that list and leave the rest. If she wins the White House, she will be unlikely to offer Sanders a Cabinet post that is worth his while to accept. His challenge will be to remain influential in a party that would be very happy to dispatch him back to obscurity.

Sanders spent a quarter century at the margins of Democratic politics and policy, and at the margins of Washington political culture. Democrats have never treated him as a player in the Senate or the House because he never was a key one. His presence on Sunday mornings was not requested by Washington television hosts. How often did you see Sanders quoted by major news media before 2015?

Now that he's used to being a big deal, he's going to want the campaign treatment to continue. That could be tough.

First, managing a "movement" is harder than running a campaign. After the election of Barack Obama, a group called Organizing for America was supposed to channel his supporters' enthusiasm into support for Obama's agenda. It was mostly a bust. After political campaigns end, supporters tend to drift. They get on with their lives. Pay less attention. Respond to fewer urgent calls to action.

And Sanders, while he has proved to be a compelling figure in Democratic politics, is a long way, in talent and impact and significance, from Obama. Whatever difficulties Obama had maintaining an organization -- as president -- will be multiplied many times for Sanders -- as senator.

As leader of the Democratic Party, Clinton will retain all the institutional, media and political advantages. Sanders, by contrast, not only won't be the leader; he will return to the same institution that houses Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Youth, the foundation of Sanders's political support, is notoriously fickle. And Warren is a shrewd and effective politician. Just because Sanders is the one who jumped into the arena, put in the work, made the sales and banked the votes doesn't mean he will get to be keeper of the flame. Warren, with a single carefully chosen issue, could end up stealing that fire for herself.

If Sanders wants to remain relevant, he may have to fend off Warren while battling Clinton and the Democratic Senate leadership for attention. He's had an uphill fight for the nomination. It isn't over. 

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:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net