On Monday — even before the Associated Press declared her the presumptive Democratic nominee — Hillary Clinton leaned on Bernie Sanders to fall in line. Citing her own precedent from 2008, Clinton told reporters, “Tomorrow is eight years to the day after I withdrew and endorsed then-Sen. Obama. I believed it was the right thing to do.”
The message from Clinton is clear: Let’s get that “Kumbaya moment” going, Bernie. And make it snappy.
But if you listen closely to Sanders — and Rolling Stone spoke to him at length in recent weeks — Clinton’s call for a replay of her 2008 unity ceremony reflects an almost willful misunderstanding of his motivations for running for president.
Clinton is asking Sanders to opt out of a nationally televised airing of the disagreements that have been the driving force of his candidacy — a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party that Sanders has loudly insisted he wants to see play out in Philadelphia.
Below are four reasons why a Kumbaya moment will remain elusive, and why the Democratic convention may well be contested until the final votes of the superdelegates are recorded in July.
This isn’t 2008
In her call for unity, Clinton referenced her disagreements with Obama. “No matter what differences we had in our long campaign,” Clinton said, “they paled in comparison to the differences we had with the Republicans.”
But, looking back on the 2008 campaign, the substantive differences on policy were vanishingly small. There were big fights over judgment (the Iraq War) and the claim to history (the first African-American versus the first woman nominee). But on policy grounds, Clinton and Obama were all but the same candidate.
Their most salient disagreement was whether the Democratic plan for universal health care ought to include a mandate to buy coverage. Clinton insisted the mandate was essential; Obama opposed as a matter of principle. They debated it ad nauseum. But in the end, this squabble was much ado about nothing. When Obama became president, Clinton’s top health-policy adviser was tapped by the White House to run point reform — and the individual mandate became a bedrock principle of Obamacare.
This is relevant today, because falling in line behind Obama in 2008 required Clinton to swallow little more than personal pride. It did not require sacrifice of any dearly held principle or policy stance — only surrender of the idea that she would have made a better president.
In 2016, the contested terrain is not symbolic. Consider Sanders’ call to break up the big banks against Clinton’s proposal to better regulate Wall Street.
This is a difference of orientation, not degree. And it is but one of many such differences.
Sanders’ fight is bigger than the nomination
Beyond his personal hopes of becoming president, Sanders’ campaign has been about forcing a national political debate on whether Americans, like citizens in many developed countries, are entitled to health care as a right, to higher education that is free like high school, to paid time off to spend time with a newborn or a sick parent, etc.
“Our major success so far is in laying out a broad progressive agenda… the media doesn’t want to hear what I have to say…. And suddenly people are hearing things they never heard before. And that’s changing consciousness. So what we have got to do is to redefine who we can be as a nation. In a sense, what we are entitled to. What rights we are entitled to as humans. That’s the struggle. And we’re making a little bit of progress.”
Sanders could have fallen in line behind Clinton months ago when the delegate math overtook him. But for the democratic socialist, fighting through to California and New Jersey has been, first, about ensuring his ideas and ideals get the broadest public airing, and second, about building the delegate support necessary to ensure those proposals are integrated into the platform of the Democratic Party.
The convention is where this fight will play out. It will happen in public. It may not be pretty. But fighting in public over big policy disputes is not a bug, for Sanders — it’s a top feature of his candidacy.
Sanders won’t muzzle his movement
When Obama ran as a grassroots upstart, it felt like a movement. And for many of the activists involved, it was a movement. But that movement ended at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Once in office, Obama revealed his true colors as an establishment Democrat, trusting his first term to former top Bill Clinton deputies like Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers. He neutered his grassroots machine by housing it inside the DNC, where it couldn’t pester conservative Democrats like Nebraska’s Ben Nelson to, for example, get on board with a public option for Obamacare.
Obama’s insurgent politics were above all an electioneering tactic — necessary for taking down the first-in-line establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton.
For Sanders in 2016, insurgency isn’t “a lane.” Sanders believes, deeply, that movement politics drive political change. To his worldview, grassroots politics is the key to raising money outside the corruption of super PACs (with which Clinton has made peace, at least for 2016). It is the vehicle to give voiceless people, whose economic interests are being ignored, political power to match their numbers and their needs.
As Sanders told Rolling Stone:
“The political revolution is waking up millions of people to stand up and fight for their own rights. The political revolution is to bring out 1.2 million people at rallies throughout this country. The political revolution is to bring in more individual campaign contributions at this point in a campaign than any candidate in American history, averaging $27 apiece. A political revolution is in every single primary or caucus we win an overwhelming majority of voters 45 years of age or younger.”
As Sanders insists in his stump speech, he sees his movement and its resonance with young people as a political changing of the guard: “Our vision of economic, social, racial and environmental justice is the future of America,” he says. “Our vision is the future of the Democratic party.”
Sanders wants to reshape the Democratic Party as a people-funded, progressive, grassroots party. To Sanders’ mind, the Democratic Party needs to reconcile the reality of his movement — attracting 18,000 supporters at a single campaign stop — with the establishment’s clubby, comfortable world of doctors, lawyers, lobbyists and executives who throw themselves big-party dinners and cut checks for $10,000.
As he explained last month:
“There are two different worlds. So the question is: What happens when that 18,000 marches into that room… ? Will they be welcomed? Will the door be open? Will the party hierarchy say, ‘Thank you for coming in. We need your energy. We need your idealism. C’mon in!’? Or will they say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a pretty good thing going right now. We don’t need you. We don’t want you’? That’s the challenge that the Democratic Party faces. And I don’t know what the answer is.”
Taking the nominating fight to the convention reflects Sanders’ faith that a collision of these two worlds is a) necessary and desirable, and b) a process for achieving reconciliation and not chaos.
It ain’t over til it’s over (really, really over)
Bernie Sanders has talked out of both sides of his mouth on the superdelegate issue. In his interview with Rolling Stone, he insisted variously that superdelegates should be swayed by the will of the voters and that superdelegates should be willing to overturn the will of the electorate — to back him, because he’s the stronger candidate.
Bernie Sanders is not a saint. And he’s not a young man. This is the Vermont senator’s one shot to become president of the United States. And keeping yourself in play as long as long as possible makes sense for any ambitious politician who can taste the White House.
Clinton is now the presumptive nominee. But she isn’t the nominee proper — not just yet. As Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs insisted on Monday, “Our job from now until the convention is to convince those superdelegates that Bernie is by far the strongest candidate against Donald Trump.”
If Sanders’ talk of persuading superdelegates — who now back Clinton by a margin of nearly 10-to-1 — sounds fantastical, well, politics is an ugly game, and shit happens.
It’s not difficult to imagine a “black swan” event — orthogonal to the dynamics of the race as we know it — that casts a cloud over Clinton’s candidacy, and appears to threaten a full term of President Donald Trump.
From the beginning, Sanders made a calculation not to hit Clinton about her “damn emails.” But those damn emails remain the focus of a federal investigation. What happens if Clinton gets indicted? Or what happens if a leaked video from one of Clinton’s paid Wall Street speeches contains a bomb like Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” quip?
For now, Clinton appears a rock-solid candidate to defeat the Donald. But a sudden sea change in public opinion could still prompt the superdelegates to follow the tide — and nominate the man who polls still say would beat Trump by double digits. It’s not likely, but it’s far from unthinkable.
It’s June. The primaries are drawing to a close. Millions of Democrats are desperate for unity. But for reasons of policy, politics and personal ambition, Kumbaya may just have to wait.