Bernie Sanders’ scorched-earth run against Hillary Clinton is a mistake.

Bernie. Don’t Do This.

Bernie. Don’t Do This.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 19 2016 7:26 PM

Bernie. Don’t Do This.

With a scorched-earth campaign against Clinton, Sanders is risking his party’s nominee, its coalition, and his message.

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Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Carson, California, on Tuesday.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is still in it to win it. Which is a problem. Because he can’t.

Hillary Clinton holds 1,768 pledged delegates—allocated through primaries and caucuses—to Sanders’ 1,494. To overcome that deficit, Sanders would have to win 67 percent of all remaining delegates, including massive wins in Clinton-friendly states such as California and New Jersey. Barring an extraordinary shift, this won’t happen. It’s not a live possibility.

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is Slates chief political correspondent.

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And yet Sanders is trying to get around these facts by arguing, in effect, that the will of his voters counts for more than the majority. In doing so, he isn’t just fighting till the last vote for a worthy cause—he’s deriding and disregarding the votes of the party’s most loyal backers, voters who are key to any progressive project, now and in the future.

But the Sanders campaign doesn’t seem to care. “While Mr. Sanders says he does not want Mr. Trump to win in November, his advisers and allies say he is 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 and arrive at the Philadelphia convention with maximum political power,” reports the New York Times on the campaign’s newest strategy—a scorched-earth run to the finish.

The reaction from mainstream Democrats, and even from a few Sanders supporters, has been decidedly negative. On the other end, Sanders’ defenders say this is no different from what Clinton herself did in the 2008 primary, when she continued until the summer, as anti–Barack Obama anger and vitriol simmered in her camp. It’s true there are real parallels and similarities. But there are real distinctions, too, that make Sanders’ actions different in kind.

Let’s compare Sanders’ actions with Clinton’s at this point in 2008. Like Clinton, Sanders has adopted an almost intransigent tone, even echoing elements of her old rhetoric. “I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” said Clinton in early May of that year, citing an Associated Press story that “found how Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.” A few days later, she would crush Obama in the West Virginia primary.

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After Sanders won that same primary, he made a similar argument, saying that he is the only candidate who can win working-class voters, in contrast to a Democratic Party that has allowed a “right-wing extremist Republican Party to capture the votes of the majority of working people in this country.” But this description of the electorate is true only if you omit blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Factor them into the population of “working people,” and Democrats win that group, handily.

If it were just this rhetoric, Sanders staying in wouldn’t be an issue. Things get heated at the end of a presidential primary, but there’s no reason the losing candidate should bail before the end. That said, there are key differences between 2008 and now. Then, Clinton promised to run only to the last primary, to give every Democrat a chance to vote (and at that point, when it was clear Obama had the pledged delegates and superdelegates to win, she conceded). Now, Sanders vows to take this fight to the convention, even if—it seems—he’s still behind in pledged delegates.

“There are a lot of people out there who say Bernie Sanders should drop out, the people of California should not have the right to determine who the next president will be,” he said to supporters in California on Tuesday night, celebrating his win in the Oregon Democratic primary. He added: “We are in this until the last ballot is counted … and then we’re going to take that fight to Philadelphia.”

Sanders isn’t just planning a run to the convention—he’s also hoping to flip enough superdelegates from the Clinton camp to erase the difference in pledged delegates, giving him the nomination. It’s a fair strategy (given the rules), but a curious one, given the extent to which Team Sanders has blasted superdelegates as unfair—another way the Democratic National Committee has rigged the primary.

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Democratic leaders say they’re worried, and it’s easy to see why. In the past month, Sanders has switched gears, from a policy critique of Clinton to a process argument against the Democratic Party. The argument? That any outcome short of full deference to his campaign is evidence of corruption and betrayal. “The Democratic Party has a choice,” he said in a statement, issued after a near riotous confrontation between Sanders and Clinton supporters in Nevada, where the former accused the latter of rigging the process for their candidate. “It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change … or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy.”

Clinton took a terrible turn in the last weeks of the 2008 campaign, where she cited the possibility of Obama being assassinated as one reason to stay in the race. But this is different. Less crass and more destructive. Even at her worst, Clinton never wavered from Democratic unity. And after she conceded the race, she urged her supporters and delegates to back Obama. Sanders, on the other hand, has offered a stark analysis to his voters. If Clinton, the winner of the Democratic primary, bends the knee, Sanders says the party is salvageable. If she doesn’t, it’s not.

In the meantime, he’ll show no care or concern in his rhetoric or attacks, a fact emphasized by the degree to which a vocal minority of his backers believe the entire process has been rigged against them, with Clinton as the illegitimate winner of an unfair contest. It drove the fracas in Nevada, and if Sanders plans to strafe Clinton ahead of California, it could drive tension elsewhere, all the way to the convention.

There is a case that all of this is proper, that if Sanders wants to change the Democratic Party—and bring independent voters into the tent—he has to attack the nominating process and the institutional Democratic Party. It’s a bad case. To start, the risk of a destructive drive to the convention—a divided party against Donald Trump—doesn’t remotely justify the gains of a more open nominating process.

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Even if it did, it’s worth looking at the grievances on display. Sanders believes he was harmed by the debate schedule. But that’s hard to gauge. Would a handful of additional debates have won him more votes in states like South Carolina and Florida, where he had core demographic weaknesses? And the fact that additional debates didn’t improve his performance in demographically similar states throws water on the argument.

Sanders’ most expansive argument is against “closed primaries,” which have entered his stump speech as a fundamentally unfair part of the process. But closed primaries weren’t created in response to Sanders—they are a long-standing feature. Critically, they are far from the least democratic part of the process. That goes to caucuses, which by their design preclude the vast majority of a given electorate from participating. If closed primaries are undemocratic for keeping out registered independents, then caucuses are undemocratic for keeping out everyone. Yet Sanders hasn’t railed against them. And why would he? They’ve delivered his largest victory margins and have fueled his campaign.

All of this might be different if Sanders held any democratic legitimacy—a majority of the popular vote or a pledged delegate lead. But he has neither. Thirteen million people have voted for Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s nominee versus 10 million for Sanders. If he were, somehow, to persuade superdelegates—i.e., elected officials and longtime party activists—to abandon Clinton, he would have negated those voters and their choice, after six months of arguing that the party must respect his supporters. A cynical observer might say that Sanders isn’t angry with the lack of democracy as much as he’s angry at losing. In any case, it’s more than a bad look for his effort—it’s ugly.

When he derides most Democratic primary voters as everything wrong with a party of “limited participation and limited energy,” when he looks for ways to nullify Clinton’s popular vote and pledged delegate majority, when he touts his support among working-class whites and dismisses (predominantly black) Southern Democrats and their votes, Sanders is attacking the coalition that elected Barack Obama—the coalition that arguably made his progressive movement possible—whether he realizes it or not.

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This coalition is predominantly nonwhite, centered in black and Latino communities, and it’s the reason Clinton stands as the likely nominee. These voters have enabled liberals to, for the first time, craft a national coalition that doesn’t have to shy from questions of racial justice and gender equality, or—like the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton—acquiesce in the face of white backlash, subsuming nonwhite concerns to the anxieties of white voters. And critically, these voters are among those Americans with the most to lose if Sanders decides that his shot at the nomination—or at changing debate and primary rules—is more important than keeping Donald Trump from the White House.

And all of this is counterproductive to his stated goal of pulling the Democratic Party to the left. If Sanders is going to have any influence—if the Sanders coalition is indeed the Democratic coalition of the future—then his supporters need to see the party as a viable vehicle for their interests, a place where they can win victories and move the needle in their direction, which isn’t possible if they view the entire political system as irreversibly flawed.

Sanders should fight until the last vote, and he should use his influence to put his stamp on what Democrats do in the fall. But this scorched-earth campaign is foolish. It helps neither him nor his message.