Sanders shouldn't quit: Top Democrats are implying that Bernie should wind down his campaign — here's why they're wrong

Win or lose, Sanders represents a needed subset of the Democratic Party determined to pull its leaders leftward

By Sean Illing

Published March 21, 2016 4:20PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders (AP)
Bernie Sanders (AP)

I've accepted that Bernie Sanders is likely to lose the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. It's not over yet, but Clinton is certainly well-positioned. However, if there's one thing the Democratic establishment should not do at this point, it's tell Bernie Sanders to quit. For one, Sanders has a right to campaign as long as he wants – he's earned it. Secondly, Sanders's campaign has shattered expectations for a reason: his message is resonating with disaffected voters.

Sanders exists because the Democratic party made him necessary. There is a growing number of liberals in this country who refuse to countenance an increasingly centrist and corporatist Democratic Party. The Dems are still preferable to the GOP, but the gap isn't nearly as broad as it should be. Sanders is forcing Clinton to move towards his positions, not the other way around, and that's precisely what the base wants.

Nevertheless, it appears some leading Democrats – and Clinton backers – are making noises about the need for Sanders to either bow out or change the tone of his campaign. According to a report in Politico, “Democratic senators of all stripes” are implying that Sanders should “start winding things down.” If not quit outright, the thinking goes, he should at least “focus more on attacking Donald Trump and the Republicans.

“What's important is not whether or not he gets out, but how he campaigns,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a longtime Clinton supporter. “If the contrast is now about what separates us from Donald Trump, then I think it's fine. I just hope we can begin to focus on unifying. Striking a similar note, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said: “It's good [for Sanders] to continue to raise the concerns that people have, but I think it ought to be in the context of, 'This is the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in this race.” Sen. Barbara Mikulski added: “It will be almost impossible for Sen. Sanders to catch up. And he should do the math and draw his own conclusions.”

First, embedded in these complaints is a false choice. Sanders can distinguish himself from Clinton while insisting that she's still a much better option than any of the Republican choices. In fact, Sanders has done this from the very beginning. “On her worst day,” Sanders has already said, “Hillary Clinton will be an infinitely better candidate and president than the Republican candidate on his best day.” More importantly, Sanders needs to continue putting pressure on Clinton; doing so forces her to engage the issues progressives want her to engage, and that's good for the party.

The truth is that Clinton's record on trade and Wall Street and foreign policy is scarcely liberal at all. Progressives know that, and Sanders's presence means Clinton can't escape her past – she has to own it and take positions that voters can and will hold her to in a general election. And if Clinton swings pendulously to the right in November, she'll pay a price for that – as she should.

Yes, the math is daunting, and the proverbial writing is on the wall. But Sanders has every reason to remain in this race. In 2008, Clinton refused to suspend her campaign until June, even though it was clear she had lost before then. Bernie is entitled to do the same, and indeed Sanders's campaign is far more important than Hillary's 2008 effort, for the reasons mentioned above.

Whether he wins or loses, Sanders represents a subset of the party determined to pull its leaders leftward, to push back against their regressive tendencies. To ignore this, to insult his supporters and Sanders himself by telling him to quit before the convention would be a grave error. In the same way the GOP undermines itself by alienating Trump voters, the Dems cannot risk driving Sanders supporters away by prematurely purging him from the process. Every single Sanders voter in every single state should have their say before this race officially narrows to one.

Clinton cannot win in November if progressive voters stay home. In a recent poll, 33 percent of Sanders supporters have threatened to do just that. That number will fall by November, but it's still revealing. It's one thing to acknowledge the delegate math, but it's quite another to suggest that Sanders should leave the race. He probably won't win, but he should campaign and challenge Clinton until the very end.

Sanders speaks for a significant number of people. It's impossible to imagine this race - focused as it is on real issues - without him in it. He owes it to his supporters to continue delivering his message for as long as he can. Senate Democrats would do well to remember that.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Barbara Mikulski Bernie Sanders Claire Mccaskill Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Jeanne Shaheen