Is Sanders spoiling the party?

May 24, 2016

Bernie Sanders has promised to support the eventual Democratic nominee, but Hillary Clinton and Co. are doing their best to smear him anyway, explains Elizabeth Schulte.

THE MESSAGE is loud and clear from the Hillary Clinton campaign: Bernie, it's time to pack it in.

That might not be surprising since Clinton is running against Sanders. But the same message is coming from the mainstream media, which claim to objectively report the news, but seem to echo the conventional wisdom of the Washington political establishment.

They can't wait for Sanders to get out of the picture so they can settle down for the "real" election between Clinton and Donald Trump. Then the campaign debate will be free of any trace of progressive rhetoric--except for the occasions, probably rare, when Hillary Clinton thinks she needs to bolster the Democratic base.

It's true that the delegate arithmetic is aligned for Clinton. As of this writing, she has 1,768 pledged delegates who will vote for her at the Democratic convention in July--which is still some distance away from a majority, but Clinton has an estimated 525 superdelegates in the bag, which means she needs less than 100 more to get over the top.

Bernie Sanders campaigning in California
Bernie Sanders campaigning in California (Roger Jones)

But whether the media or the party leaders like it or not, there are still Democratic primaries to go, including the biggest contest of all in California in June--and the people who live there want to cast their ballots as if this is actually, you know, a democratic process.

From the very beginning of his campaign, Bernie Sanders has promised to support the eventual Democratic nominee if it isn't him. For the last several decades, he's shunned any independent presidential candidate like Ralph Nader and lined up behind the Democrats at election time, despite his nominal identification as an independent.

As has stated in response to the illusions of some left-wing figures and organizations that Sanders will break from the Democrats, there's no reason not to take him at his word.

Now, various members of the Democratic Party establishment are peddling the same claim, but as part of an effort to drive Sanders out of the Democratic primaries and strengthen Hillary Clinton in time for November.

WITH SANDERS having the gall to keep asking people to vote for him, Clinton's surrogates have turned to more underhanded methods. Enter the so-called "riot" at the Nevada state party convention on May 14, where Sanders supporters were accused of violence on the convention floor.

There were terrifying tales of Sanders thuggery all around--a New York Times story headlined "From Bernie Sanders Supporters, Death Threats Over Delegates" began this way:

Thrown chairs. Leaked cellphone numbers. Death threats spewed across the Internet. No, this is not the work of Donald J. Trump supporters, some of whom have harassed critics of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. It was angry supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders.

Except that isn't what happened. For example, the press reported claims from state party officials that Sanders supporters threw chairs, but no one has substantiated the accusations. There's video showing someone lifting a chair--and then setting it down after the people around him urged him to.

This isn't to say there wasn't outrage, including a lot of yelling and pushing, on the convention floor in Nevada. Sanders supporters had a good reason to yell--the party officialdom organized the convention to favor Clinton. Chair Roberta Lange regularly ignored motions from the floor and miscalled voice votes obviously favoring Sanders' supporters.

But then again, the fix was in well before any of this happened.

The Nevada Democratic primary is a long and complicated process. First come precinct-level caucuses. You might remember those from back in February--Clinton won by a narrow margin according to the results that night, though there were a lot of complaints from the Sanders campaign. Then came county conventions in April, which elected delegates to the state convention that happened this month.

Going in, Sanders had 2,124 delegates to Clinton's 1,722. Until convention officials changed the rules--and changed the rules for challenging rules changes. They also disqualified 64 delegates and didn't allow 58 of them to appeal the decision. By the end, the Clinton camp had a slight lead.

Clinton is no newcomer to, ahem, election irregularities in Nevada. In her race against Barack Obama in 2008, there were widespread reports of trouble at caucus sites, including doors closing 30 minutes early and IDs being requested and checked in a non-uniform fashion, according to the Obama campaign.

The same kind of dirty tricks protested on behalf of the current president of the United States eight years ago were perpetrated again in Nevada--but the Sanders supporters were labeled troublemakers for speaking up about them.

YOU MIGHT not have known any of that from the mainstream media accounts, where the leading lights of unbiased American journalism repeated unsubstantiated claims about Sanders supporters--and then got on with the business of chastising Sanders for refusing to just let Clinton win.

For his part, Sanders protested the accusations against his supporters' supposed "penchant for violence," pointing out that his Nevada campaign office was fired on and his staff's living quarters ransacked.

But Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall didn't want to hear about it. He let loose on his blog: the problem with lying to your supporters. Sanders is telling his supporters that he can still win, which he can't. He's suggesting that the win is being stolen by a corrupt establishment, an impression which will be validated when his phony prediction turns out not to be true. Lying like this sets you up for stuff like happened over the weekend in Nevada.

And ill-tempered ranting like this sets you up for being dismissed as a cheap hack.

For her part, Clinton hasn't said anything about the incident in Nevada--because she didn't have to. While her supporters piled on, Clinton simply repeated the delegate math equation and shifted the discussion to the candidate she'd rather be running against, Donald Trump.

Sanders' status as a Washington outsider--even though it's not exactly true given his two decades spent in Congress, working with the Democrats throughout--has been the bread-and-butter of his campaign, gaining him a wide hearing among people tired of political business as usual.

It's that same label that's irritating the Clinton campaign, which is trying to shift the discussion from hopes for what's possible to the cold calculation of what Corporate America is going to let you have.

The Clinton campaign would like Sanders to step aside and just endorse her already--the way he said he would from the start--and stop criticizing her conservative record and lousy stances on any number of issues. To that end, Sanders is being denounced for spoiling and splitting the Democratic Party, and so are the people who want to vote for him because they want to see an alternative to the status quo.

The Democratic Party establishment's attitude toward Sanders was probably best articulated by an anonymous senior Clinton aide after the New York primary in April, who told Politico, "Fuck him."

THE ALL-out assault on Sanders could make it awkward for him to call on his supporters to vote for Clinton in July, even if Democratic leaders let them have some input in crafting the party platform. For sure, Sanders is getting visibly angry at the behavior of the Clinton campaign.

But that doesn't mean that Sanders won't follow through on his promise. In the end, the rancorous debate in the run-up to the Democratic convention might even make it look to some people like there's an actual democratic process going on.

But the main takeaway from this election for many people will be the depths that the Democratic Party will go to silence any forces to its left. That will be felt even more strongly when the primaries are done, and those who don't fall in line behind the Democratic candidate against Donald Trump won't just be accused of disuniting the party, but of paving the way for a Trump presidency.

The lesson for people who care about the issues that Sanders is talking about can't be that the Democratic Party needs to be fixed along the lines that Sanders hopes--but that it's not their party at all.

Further Reading

From the archives