Bernie's new mission: Democrats can stop worrying about Sanders tearing the party apart on his way out

Sanders admits (kind of) that he can't win, but he will use his leverage to fight for a progressive platform

Published April 27, 2016 3:12PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders   (AP/Elaine Thompson)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Elaine Thompson)

As the Democratic race for president has narrowed, the conversation has turned increasingly to questions about tone and style. What kind of campaign will Sanders run once it's clear he has no path to the nomination? Will he become more or less aggressive? Can he stay focused on the issues? Party insiders have worried publicly about a budding tension between the two candidates. After months of tough campaigning, a little acrimony is expected – there's nothing unusual or alarming about that. The real concern, for Democrats at least, is the state of the party heading into a general election. A fractured Democratic Party could lose in November, no matter how objectively terrible the Republican option is.

And there's no way around it: There is a deep divide within the party. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are different candidates with different histories and contrasting approaches to politics. Yes, there is considerable overlap in terms of their rhetoric, but the party's progressive base is justifiably skeptical of Clinton. Sanders has rightfully exploited this throughout the campaign.

But it's now impossible to ignore the math. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. The campaign was genuinely competitive until early March, when Clinton scored a series of victories on Super Tuesday. Sanders came roaring back in Michigan and later in Wisconsin, but he couldn't win in crucial states like Ohio, Florida, and New York. Before nearly sweeping the primaries yesterday, Clinton needed only 41.6 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination – and that's not including superdelegates, almost all of which support her. It's even worse for Sanders now. Depending on how the final delegate count breaks down, Sanders will need to win nearly 70 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to surpass Clinton.

That's not going to happen.

Thus the questions about Sanders' strategy moving forward are all the more pressing. If he can't win the nomination, it's worth asking what his goal will be? Tuesday night we got an answer to this question in the form of a statement released by the Sanders campaign. What it amounts to is a tacit admission that Sanders can't win, and indeed that winning isn't the strategy any longer.

Sanders writes:

“The people in every state in this country should have the right to determine who they want as president and what the agenda of the Democratic Party should be. That's why we are in this race until the last vote is cast. That is why this campaign is going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with as many delegates as possible 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.”

First, Sanders is absolutely right to stay in the race until the last vote is cast. In 2008, Hillary Clinton forged ahead until the last set of primaries were held, even though the race was over long before that. One could argue Sanders has greater cause to continue campaigning this year. He represents an under-served wing of the party, the progressive wing, which includes young people and plenty of independent-minded voters. As I pointed out Tuesday, the Sanders campaign is an opportunity for Democrats to re-establish themselves as the party of the working and middle classes. That's a message he should take straight to the convention floor, and demand that the party listen. The longer he campaigns, the harder it is to ignore him.

If you read between the lines his statement Tuesday night, however, the meaning is clear: We can't win but we have an enormous amount of leverage and we intend to use that leverage to shape the party's platform. Team Sanders can read the writing on the wall: they know they can't close the delegate gap at this point. But they can take their substantial number of delegates and their historical fundraising operation and their two-million-person donor list to the Democratic establishment and dare them to ignore the issues on which Sanders built his movement.

The good news is that Democrats can stop worrying about Sanders setting fire to the party on his way out. This statement along with reports that Sanders plans to “soften” his attacks on Hillary and instead focus on the core issues ought to assuage any fears that he will resort to mudslinging. Frankly, the concerns about Sanders going negative were misguided to begin with. He's been tough but he hasn't crossed any lines, and he's run as open and positive a campaign as you'll find at this level of politics.

Sanders is doing what he should do: representing the people who support his campaign. The Democrats – and Clinton in particular – would do well to embrace him at the convention. That's how they win in November and, more importantly, that's how they appeal to a generation of progressive voters hungry for change.

By 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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Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Editor's Pick Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton