Bernie Sanders' Quiet Triumph in the 2016 Race

Sanders didn't win the nomination, but he won the argument, shaping key Clinton policies and the future of the party

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Bernie Sanders' Quiet Triumph in the 2016 Race
Bernie Sanders has over the past weeks succeeded in influencing the Democratic Party platform and Hillary Clinton's policy positions on health care and higher education.

On Tuesday morning, Bernie Sanders finally endorsed Hillary Clinton, giving nervous Democrats — dreading that a fractured party could fumble away the White House to Donald Trump — the "Kumbaya moment" they'd been pining for.

Sanders' endorsement of his establishment rival marks the end of his implausible, meteoric campaign for president. But it should also mark a victory for his brand of democratic socialism. Sanders didn't secure the nomination, but he has left an indelible mark on Hillary Clinton's governing agenda, and he has reshaped the Democratic Party platform, likely for elections to come.

Sanders' endorsement of Clinton comes on the heels of two major policy concessions by the Democratic nominee. Lost amid the bloodshed last week of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the massacred Dallas police officers, Clinton embraced the core of Sanders' education plan and also took a major step toward his agenda on health care.

Eager to bring Sanders' young supporters into her fold, Clinton has adopted free-college-for-(almost)-all. Clinton had previously proposed complex policies to minimize student debt, and had blasted Sanders' free-college plans for spending public money to educate children of the wealthy — including (hypothetically) the children of Donald Trump.

The new Clinton spin on the Sanders education plan would extend free public-college tuition to households earning up to $125,000 a year — or to more than 80 percent of American families. The Clinton plan would phase in, beginning with families making $85,000 or less, and ramping up to the $125,000 threshold by 2021. Placing this shift by Clinton in the context of his "political revolution," Sanders praised Clinton for a "revolutionary step forward" — a "very bold" plan that, he said, "combines some of the strongest ideas she fought for during the campaign with some of the principles that I fought for."

On health care, Clinton took significant, but more modest, steps toward Sanders' dream of a national health plan. Clinton proposed allowing Americans over the age of 55 to buy into Medicare, the federal health care program for seniors, which provides health coverage at a steep discount to private insurance. In essence, this proposal would create a "public option" for Americans nearing retirement. In addition, Clinton revived her 2008 commitment to fight for a state-run public-option insurance plan for Americans regardless of age in each Obamacare exchange. Further, Clinton vowed to devote another $40 billion to a nationwide expansion of community health centers — offering primary care regardless of a patient's ability to pay, including to millions of farmworkers, public housing residents and Americans experiencing homelessness.

On these health care issues, Sanders saluted Clinton for amping up the boldness of her familiar, incrementalist approach: "These steps will get us closer to the day when everyone in America has access to quality, affordable health care," he said.

These ambitious education and health care proposals are now grafted into Hillary Clinton's governing agenda — deepening the imprint of a Sanders candidacy that had previously pushed Clinton into opposing both the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership she once touted as the "gold standard" of free-trade agreements.

The fact that Clinton was forced to tack to the left on key issues at the close of the Democratic primary contest underscores the enduring grassroots power of the Sanders political coalition. That Clinton is able to move left in the context of the general election (when Democrats usually pivot to the right) speaks volumes to Donald Trump's indifference to policy. There are peculiar advantages to squaring off against a nativist strongman campaigning on a cult of personality and a platform of bigotry rather than a coherent right-wing policy agenda.

Sanders' quiet triumph extends beyond the policy proposals Hillary Clinton is now promising to enact as president. The Democratic Party's national platform — a statement of values and vision more than a governing agenda — now reads like it was cribbed from Sanders' campaign website.

The platform, enacted with the participation of Sanders' delegates, calls for legal marijuana and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. To reform Wall Street, it demands the breakup of too-big-to-fail banks and a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, separating high-risk investment banking from traditional commercial banking. On criminal-justice reform, it calls for the abolition of the death penalty, an end to private prisons and for routine Justice Department reviews of police shootings. On climate, the platform exhorts Congress to place a price on carbon and methane pollution, to weigh climate in all policy decisions and to invest heavily in wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

With these ideals now spelled out in black and white, the Democratic platform reinforces a line Sanders used frequently in his stump speech: "Our vision of economic, social, racial and environmental justice is the future of America," he would say, "and the future of the Democratic Party."

Rather than claim victory for revolutionizing the platform, Sanders has deflected the credit to his supporters. "We have made enormous strides," Sanders said last week. "Thanks to the millions of people across the country who got involved in the political process — many for the first time — we now have the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party."