Loud but not so clear.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sanders Has Two Paths to Success

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

Can Bernie Sanders do something productive with all the enthusiasm he has generated? Something besides wage a campaign against Hillary Clinton he is set to lose? 

While Greg Sargent of the Washington Post has an optimistic take -- that Sanders can lead his young idealistic supporters to do useful things beyond the Democratic presidential race -- Kevin Drum at Mother Jones is skeptical. He thinks the Vermont socialist is invested in selling a pipe dream, so any efforts he makes outside the Democratic race would amount to nothing, or worse than nothing. His youthful admirers would see that and grow disillusioned.

For now, Sanders seems to be going with the pipe-dream theory. Over the weekend, he talked about flipping super-delegates who now back Hillary Clinton and winning huge majorities in the remaining primaries, even though he’s currently behind in the polls in many of those states. He spoke of a “contested convention” as if merely insisting on putting his name into nomination before losing would somehow make the outcome less certain.

This isn’t just a question of whether Sanders can use the resources he commands to win a few more delegates for his column or, say, deflect those resources toward House, Senate, state and local races, where his money and volunteers time might still yield more tangible results. 

Sanders’s campaign is complicated by two distinct agendas, as Jonathan Chait usefully explains. The first involves pushing what Chait calls “radical policies on the left.” These include a single-payer system in health care, much more stringent banking rules, free college for all, and other new government programs, along with higher taxes to pay for it all. His second strategy is to push for traditional good-government policies, such as campaign-finance reform and changes to the presidential nomination process. Chait suspects it’s the good-government message, not the big-government social policy, that accounts for much of the popular enthusiasm for “the Bern.”

The good-government agenda, which might also include making voting easier and reforming the redistricting process, is something Clinton and the Democratic party actors who support her could get behind relatively quickly. If this is the reform that matters most to Sanders, then he might be quite effective in elevating it as a party priority.  

If this is the fight he wants, then staying active in the Democratic race and working hard to win as many delegates as he can in the remaining primaries is a good strategy. More delegates would help him win debates over the Democratic platform and impress the leaders that he commands an impressive section of their party.

But if he’s mainly intent on pushing his particular package of changes to health care, the financial markets and so on, then nothing of importance is going to happen at the Democratic National Convention. At least for now, much of what Sanders wants is simply not backed by Clinton and the coalition that would nominate her, and they aren’t going to surrender to the losing candidate.

To win on those issues, Sanders has to concentrate his resources on the long and uncertain path of taking over the Democratic Party, as Drum describes. The Sanders movement, if it wants a Democratic Party of the left, needs to succeed in putting its candidates up for election at all levels below the presidency. And he would need to put that energy to work n those fights right now -- not after the California primary in June, or after the convention in July, when a lot of resources and opportunities will have dissipated.

Either way, the best thing Sanders can do for his agenda this fall is to put Clinton into the White House with as many allies in Congress as she can get. After all, the current Democratic Party, Clinton included, is far closer to both his good-government positions and to his policies on the other issues than the Republican Party will ever be.

But he has to choose.  And if he doesn’t, there’s a good chance he’ll wind up having no long-term effect. Worse, he might convince a generation of young people that politics can’t work. 

  1. For everyone but Sanders, a “contested” or “open” or “deadlocked” convention is one in which no candidate has a clear majority of the delegates when the convention opens. That won’t be the case for the Democrats in Philadelphia.

  2. Whether pushing reforms to the presidential nomination process would do any good is a different question, since state governments make the decisions on the primaries (setting the date and the rules on whether independents can vote, for example). The national party may have some influence in some states, but it can’t dictate anything.

  3. Why not both? Because resources are finite in politics. Sanders has already lost the chance to affect the outcomes in many House, Senate and other races this year by focusing on the presidential level after it was clear he had no chance of being nominated.

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:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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