Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency in 2016. That’s not an endorsement, and it’s not a particularly controversial statement – that’s just the way things stand based on any fair reading of the primary results. Right now there are large and vocal segments of the Democratic electorate loudly screaming at each other because they either counterfactually deny this truth or they self-righteously wield it as a cudgel. What’s lacking from all this bickering is a sense of perspective and a recognition that the party, for all its differences, isn’t nearly as divided as it appears on the surface.
Let’s start with the folks who insist on living the fantasy in which a plausible route to the nomination exists for Bernie Sanders. The New York Times reported yesterday that Sanders’ campaign is prepping to inflict damage on Clinton in the few remaining primaries, with its attention focused primarily on California:
Mr. Sanders, his advisers said, has been buoyed by a stream of polls showing him beating Mr. Trump by larger margins than Mrs. Clinton in some battleground states, and by his belief that an upset victory in California could have a psychological impact on convention delegates who already have doubts about Mrs. Clinton.
This is a thoroughly unrealistic strategy and it will not work. We know it won’t work because it didn’t work eight years ago when Hillary Clinton herself tried to do something very similar as a last-ditch effort to derail Barack Obama’s march to the nomination. Hillary won the majority of the late primaries, some by large margins, and pleaded with superdelegates to switch their allegiance to her based on her perceived general election strength. The superdelegates were unwilling to abandon pledged delegate-leader Obama, so Clinton lost. Right now, Sanders’ pledged delegate deficit is far larger than Hillary’s was eight years ago, and to win a majority of those pledged delegates, he’d have to blow out Clinton in every remaining state, including California, where he currently trails in the polling averages. The math and the calendar say Bernie will lose.
But the Sanders campaign and its supporters are growing more comfortable encouraging the legitimately poisonous notion that Bernie losing means the nomination was somehow stolen from him. That sentiment was at the center of the fracas that unfolded at the Nevada state convention, where a process fight over two lousy delegates erupted into chaos as, according to journalist Jon Ralston, “a group of delegates, stirred up by Sanders operatives, determined that the deck was stacked against them and they were going to be cheated.” As Ed Kilgore writes, the Sanders people may have some legitimate beefs with the nominating process, but none of them rise to the level of an anti-Sanders conspiracy, and they certainly don’t qualify as nomination theft. Bernie has a responsibility, which he’s currently not meeting, to make this clear to his supporters.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with a vigorously contested primary campaign continuing on. Sanders remains popular, he’s well-funded, and he’ll have considerable pull when it comes to setting the platform and tone for the nominating convention. If he wants to make Hillary Clinton fight for every vote and delegate, so be it. He’s earned the right. And, assuming he campaigns in a way that doesn’t fundamentally undermine the likely nominee, Sanders should absolutely ignore the pro-Clinton people who are leveraging Hillary’s all-but assured victory to either demand that he drop out or concern-troll over “party unity.” Again, from the Times: “The prospect of a drawn-out Democratic fight is deeply troubling to party leaders who are eager for Mrs. Clinton and House and Senate candidates to turn to attacking Mr. Trump without being diverted by Democratic strife.”
All this fretting over unity is thoroughly overblown and wildly out of place. Polls show that Democratic voters are generally happy with both candidates, and they’d be equally enthusiastic for Clinton or Sanders. And, for anyone who remembers the last contested Democratic primary, what we’re seeing now between Clinton and Sanders is a pale shade of the fight between Clinton and Barack Obama, which the party managed to get over with little difficulty in time for the general election.
Back in 2008, we had Hillary Clinton supporters musing openly about Obama being a drug dealer, and her chief strategist went on TV and deliberately said “cocaine” as many times as he could in relation to Obama (who wrote in his memoir about blowing coke as a college student). Clinton herself aimed barbed personal attacks at Obama, calling him a vacant naïf who couldn’t do anything beyond give a good speech. There were racially fraught swipes, scornful dismissals, and utterly bizarre insinuations that the race could be upended by anything, including an assassination. After Clinton conceded defeat, we had to tolerate the PUMAs – remember those assholes? – who made “Party Unity My Ass” their mantra and got a lot of media attention (primarily from Fox News) for employing incoherent racism as their chief weapon in a deluded quest to keep alive the Hillary-Obama division and make John McCain president.
Now compare all that long-since buried nastiness with what Sanders has in store for his allegedly scorched-earth California campaign. Once more, from the Times:
But Mr. Sanders has sharpened his language of late, saying Tuesday night that the party faced a choice to remain “dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy” or “welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change.”
Oh dang, put those gloves back on, Bernie.
I get it – it’s been a long and exhausting primary season, the closeness of the race has laid bare some shitty practices both camps use to secure an advantage, and that leads to hot tempers and intense handwringing over whether the Democratic Party will ever be able to “unite.” And that question seems super important given that President Donald Trump is a possible outcome of persistent Democratic division. We’ve grown so accustomed to the idea of primaries as relatively fuss-free coronations that small hints of discord come to be seen as deep and irreparable fractures. But the party has gotten over worse and very likely will again.