Bernie Sanders (AP/Julie Jacobson)

Forget about unity, Bernie isn't letting go: Sanders is willing to harm Clinton down the stretch, report says

It makes sense for Bernie to maximize his influence, but he must tread lightly or he could harm the party


Sean Illing
May 19, 2016 7:04PM (UTC)

On Wednesday, I wrote about the cascade of concerns from various Democrats about the tone and direction of Bernie Sanders campaign. Many in the establishment are worried that Sanders is needlessly stoking resentment and doing lasting damage to Hillary Clinton. It's not clear that challenging a candidate in the primaries is a bad thing, but the angst is rising among Democrats nonetheless.

Now that the race is essentially over, Sanders has a choice to make. He will continue campaigning until the last ballot is cast, but how he orients himself to Clinton is an open question. He can push his message without attacking Clinton or he can push his message and take a “scorched earth” approach. It appears he's leaning towards the latter.

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According to a New York Times report, the Sanders campaign has no intention of backing off. On the contrary, they plan to up the ante and increase the pressure on Clinton and the DNC:

“Defiant and determined to transform the Democratic Party, Senator Bernie Sanders is opening a two-month phase of his presidential campaign aimed at inflicting a heavy blow on Hillary Clinton in California and amassing enough leverage to advance his agenda at the convention in July – or even wrest the nomination from her. Advisers to Mr. Sanders said on Wednesday that he was newly resolved to remain in the race, seeing an aggressive campaign as his only chance to pressure Democrats into making fundamental changes to how presidential primaries and debates are held in the future.”

This notion that he can “wrest the nomination” from Clinton is foolhardy. The delegate math is straightforward. Even a huge win in California won't change the broader race. Barring a federal indictment (which is highly, highly unlikely), Clinton will be the nominee. I don't see the wisdom in pretending otherwise. But Sanders' emphasis on acquiring delegates and increasing his influence makes sense. If he wants to have a prominent role at the convention, if wants to help shape the platform, securing more votes and delegates matters a great deal.

A few weeks ago, there were reports that Sanders planned to “soften” his attacks on Clinton and instead focus on the issues. The strategy then was to remain positive and use their delegates and their historical fundraising operation and their two-million-person donor list as leverage at the convention. Evidently, things have changed.

Sanders' “newly resolute attitude,” the authors of The New York Times report write, “is the cumulative result of months of anger at the national Democrat Party over a debate schedule that his campaign said favored Mrs. Clinton; a fund-raising arrangement between the party and the Clinton campaign; the appointment of fierce Clinton partisans as leaders of important convention committees' and the party's rebuke of Mr. Sanders on Tuesday for not clearly condemning a melee at the Nevada Democratic convention.” So angry, in fact, that while Sanders has no interest in helping Trump, he's “willing to do some harm to Mrs. Clinton in the shorter term if it means he can capture a majority of the 475 pledged delegates at stake in California.”

Some have speculated that Sanders' aggressive tone was the work of his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, but it appears that's not the case. This is Sanders' campaign, and he has decided this is the way forward. This is a high-risk proposition for Sanders. There's no doubt he can pivot at the convention and throw his support behind Clinton, but if he goes overly negative, it will be impossible – if it isn't already – to persuade many of his voters to fall in line. Fair or not, if the unthinkable happens in November and Trump wins, Sanders would receive more than his share of the blame. I doubt that happens, but it's not impossible.

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Sanders' grievances are legitimate, and he ought to voice them. He needs to be careful, however. Pretending he has a path to the nomination when he doesn't is bad enough, but doing so while laying waste to the party and it's nominee could backfire in the worst way.


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 silling@salon.com.

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