Open­ing Re­marks

San­ders could change the Demo­cratic Party—if he knew how to quit

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - By Joshua Green

Look­ing back now, it’s clear that Bernie San­ders reached the apex of his po­lit­i­cal power in the weeks lead­ing up to the June 7 Cal­i­for­nia pri­mary. His im­prob­a­ble rise had gal­va­nized mil­lions. He’d put a scare into Hil­lary Clin­ton. Al­though he had no plau­si­ble shot by that point of win­ning the Demo­cratic nomination, he looked ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing Cal­i­for­nia, which would have in­flicted real dam­age on his ri­val. Clin­ton un­der­stood this and sig­naled she was ready to bar­gain for his en­dorse­ment. He never placed the call.

San­ders lost Cal­i­for­nia, and he lost the nomination. And with each day that he with­holds his en­dorse­ment, he loses a lit­tle more of the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal he gained dur­ing the pri­maries. San­ders un­doubt­edly shifted the bal­ance of power in the Demo­cratic Party and ex­posed its gen­er­a­tional fu­ture. But his per­sonal in­volve­ment in th­ese changes is quickly fad­ing.

His­tory is full of ex­am­ples of can­di­dates who ran thrilling pri­mary races, came up short, and then trans­lated that ex­cite­ment into tan­gi­ble gains: a key cab­i­net post (Hil­lary Clin­ton), a fu­ture can­di­dacy (Ron­ald Rea­gan, Gary Hart), or in­flu­ence in the next ad­min­is­tra­tion through per­son­nel ap­point­ments or pol­icy com­mit­ments.

San­ders could have ranked among them. But, for rea­sons rooted in his per­son­al­ity and aloof po­lit­i­cal style, it looks like he won’t. He’s trapped by an in­abil­ity, baf­fling even to some of his sup­port­ers, to end his cam­paign on ad­van­ta­geous terms. For weeks he’s swerved like a loose fire hose be­tween gruff sug­ges­tions of sup­port for Clin­ton—say­ing he’ll do all he can to stop Don­ald Trump—and threats to keep fight­ing her straight through the con­ven­tion, pos­si­bly ex­pect­ing she’d be in­dicted for main­tain­ing a pri­vate e-mail server as sec­re­tary of state. (On July 6, the day af­ter the FBI said it wouldn’t rec­om­mend any charges, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice said none would be pressed.)

Asked re­cently by NBC’s An­drea Mitchell why he wouldn’t back Clin­ton,

San­ders replied as if the pri­mary bat­tle were still rag­ing: “It’s not a ques­tion of my en­dorse­ment. It’s a ques­tion of the Amer­i­can peo­ple un­der­stand­ing that Sec­re­tary Clin­ton is pre­pared to stand with them as they work longer hours for low wages, as they can­not af­ford health care, as their kids can’t af­ford to go to col­lege. Make it clear that she is on their side, that she is pre­pared to take on Wall Street, the drug com­pa­nies, fos­sil fuel in­dus­try. Deal with the global cri­sis of cli­mate change. I have no doubt that if Sec­re­tary Clin­ton makes that po­si­tion, those po­si­tions clear, she will de­feat Trump and de­feat him by a very wide mar­gin.” Here was San­ders still pi­ously in­sist­ing on com­plete ca­pit­u­la­tion—even though Clin­ton beat him by a larger mar­gin than Barack Obama had beaten her eight years ear­lier.

What’s the mat­ter with San­ders? Ev­ery Demo­crat not fully in thrall to him wants to know. Clin­ton of­fi­cials pri­vately seethe at his con­tin­ued crit­i­cism. Lib­er­als who once cheered his as­cent now worry he could di­vide the party with cat­a­strophic re­sults: a Trump pres­i­dency. Sym­pa­thetic voices such as Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist E.J. Dionne have ner­vously re­minded San­ders of his “moral obli­ga­tion to help Clin­ton,” while the Huff­in­g­ton Post has veered to­ward out­right alarm at his “be­wil­der­ing” be­hav­ior.

In run­ning for pres­i­dent, San­ders trans­formed Demo­cratic pol­i­tics by demon­strat­ing that blunt talk about eco­nomic in­equal­ity can an­i­mate a broad por­tion of the elec­torate and isn’t the po­lit­i­cal killer Demo­cratic strate­gists be­lieved. For years, the Re­pub­li­can charge of “class war­fare” cowed many Democrats from speak­ing out. San­ders showed they needn’t worry any longer. “The charge of ‘class war­fare’ was a very pow­er­ful ob­sta­cle for us for years, and it died this year. I give San­ders some credit for that,” says Barney Frank, the lib­eral former con­gress­man from Mas­sachusetts and long­time San­ders col­league. “But I think he’s al­ready eroded much of what he gained. If the goal is to max­i­mize your im­pact on pub­lic pol­icy, then he’s mak­ing se­ri­ous mis­takes. There are more and more peo­ple an­gry at him.” A San­ders spokesman de­clined to com­ment.

And San­ders isn’t just un­der­min­ing Clin­ton. Whether or not he re­al­izes it, he’s un­der­min­ing his self-ap­pointed role as Wall Street scourge and lib­eral stan­dard-bearer, be­cause he can’t fig­ure out how to lose.

Two months ago he seemed des­tined to be a con­se­quen­tial fig­ure who would guide the Demo­cratic Party left­ward for years to come. Now, with Pres­i­dent Obama and Mas­sachusetts Se­na­tor El­iz­a­beth War­ren step­ping in to unify the party be­hind Clin­ton, San­ders in­creas­ingly looks like an af­ter­thought who’s squan­der­ing an his­toric op­por­tu­nity.

De­spite the pas­sions he aroused in the pri­maries, San­ders may be uniquely ille­quipped to carry off the trans­for­ma­tion of Wash­ing­ton he’s long called for. The same qual­i­ties that his sup­port­ers find so ap­peal­ing—his in­de­pen­dence from any party es­tab­lish­ment and his open dis­dain for the po­lit­i­cal process—are also rea­sons why he has so few leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ments, even af­ter decades in Con­gress.

“San­ders’s ap­proach for 25 years has been, ‘I will say what is the right thing to do, and then crit­i­cize any­body who doesn’t join me,’ ” Frank says. “It’s not sim­ply a re­fusal to com­pro­mise. It’s a fo­cus on be­ing al­most morally su­pe­rior to ev­ery­one else. Eschew­ing com­pro­mise is part of that.” Over that time, San­ders op­er­ated as a free rider, avail­ing him­self of all the ben­e­fits of party mem­ber­ship, even as he point­edly stood out­side the party sys­tem by declar­ing him­self an in­de­pen­dent. “He ben­e­fited in the House and Se­nate from the Demo­cratic ma­jori­ties and the se­nior­ity sys­tem that let him move into [se­nior] po­si­tions with­out hav­ing to ac­tu­ally do any­thing to help other mem­bers,” says John Lawrence, former chief of staff to Demo­cratic Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi. “In fact, he made a point of not do­ing that. He’s been a mem­ber of the club with­out hav­ing to pay dues.” As San­ders him­self has ad­mit­ted, he be­came a Demo­crat on the eve of the cam­paign purely for the sake of ex­pe­di­ency: It was his best shot at the White House. It’s no ac­ci­dent that he drew fewer en­dorse­ments from his con­gres­sional col­leagues than Ted Cruz.

San­ders has used his ca­reer in Con­gress to sig­nal his own virtue rel­a­tive to other politi­cians—also the mes­sage of his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “The lec­ture he de­liv­ers on the trail about how ‘mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires’ have a lock on the po­lit­i­cal process is the same one he gives to his col­leagues be­hind closed doors,” says Jim Man­ley, former com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Harry Reid. But pol­i­tics is a grubby busi­ness, and pu­rity comes at a price. San­ders’s con­tem­po­raries in Con­gress in­clude ma­jor lib­eral leg­is­la­tors whose ca­reers pro­duced land­mark re­forms: Frank (the Dodd-Frank fi­nan­cial re­forms) and former Cal­i­for­nia Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Ge­orge Miller (No Child Left Be­hind) and Henry Wax­man (the Clean Air Act, the Af­ford­able Care Act) among them. In their per­sonal pol­i­tics, each in­hab­ited a space with San­ders along the left wing of the Demo­cratic Party.

“If the goal is to max­i­mize your im­pact on pub­lic pol­icy, then he’s mak­ing se­ri­ous mis­takes”

What dis­tin­guished Frank, Miller, and Wax­man, how­ever, was their will­ing­ness and abil­ity to marry ide­al­ism with prag­ma­tism, to claim par­tial vic­to­ries that, over time, led to his­toric changes. They didn’t wait for a rev­o­lu­tion. In fact, dur­ing Rea­gan’s pres­i­dency, as dark a pe­riod for lib­er­al­ism as any in re­cent mem­ory, Wax­man struck a se­ries of deals to ex­pand Med­i­caid cover­age—an oft-stated goal in the San­ders litany. And though all three leg­is­la­tors are now re­tired, their in­flu­ence lives on in gen­er­a­tions of former staffers who fanned out across Capi­tol Hill and into the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. San­ders’s most prom­i­nent ex-staffer, his cam­paign man­ager, Jeff Weaver, runs a comic book store in Vir­ginia.

Al­though San­ders won 22 states and 12 mil­lion votes in the Demo­cratic pri­maries, his ori­en­ta­tion has never been to­ward the party. This is why he won’t end his cam­paign in ac­cor­dance with the usual pro­to­col. The en­tice­ments that typ­i­cally per­suade a run­ner-up to fall in line be­hind the nom­i­nee—loy­alty to party and the chance to ad­vance within its power struc­ture—hold lit­tle ap­peal for some­one de­ter­mined to go it alone. “I think he views the ex­cite­ment he built dur­ing the cam­paign as a prod­uct of sup­port for him per­son­ally, rather than for the Demo­cratic Party or Hil­lary Clin­ton,” says Lawrence, who spent years work­ing for Miller be­fore Pelosi. “He wants to build a move­ment tied to prin­ci­ple, not to party, which is how he has al­ways func­tioned. That min­i­mizes his need to in­gra­ti­ate him­self with party lead­ers or ask his sup­port­ers to ac­cept a nom­i­nee they don’t like.”

But it presents San­ders with the dif­fi­cult ques­tion of how to har­ness his new­found stature. The skill you need most when you’ve fallen just short of the nomination is the abil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate con­ces­sions that ad­vance your goals and ex­tend your in­flu­ence, even with some­one else atop the ticket. San­ders has never shown any in­ter­est or fa­cil­ity in ex­ert­ing power through the usual chan­nels. He ab­hors the whole process. That’s why he’s stuck: If you re­ject the idea of com­pro­mise, it’s im­pos­si­ble to set­tle for any­thing less than out­right vic­tory.

If San­ders wants to shape Demo­cratic pol­i­tics, he’ll con­front the time­less Wash­ing­ton dilemma of whether to main­tain his ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity or sit down and bar­gain with the en­emy. His lone leg­isla­tive achieve­ment of any sig­nif­i­cance, a vet­er­ans bill he passed with Ari­zona Se­na­tor John McCain, sug­gests he’s at least ca­pa­ble of the lat­ter. When San­ders first in­tro­duced the bill, it went nowhere. Only af­ter en­list­ing McCain, and mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions, did the re­vised ver­sion pass into law.

San­ders does fi­nally ap­pear to be inch­ing to­ward a uni­fy­ing mo­ment with Clin­ton. “That’s a process we’re work­ing on that could lead to an en­dorse­ment be­fore the con­ven­tion,” says San­ders spokesman Michael Briggs. Still, San­ders seems de­ter­mined to avoid mak­ing con­ces­sions to Clin­ton, even if she man­ages to wrench an en­dorse­ment from him. “His real ob­jec­tive is to keep to­gether the move­ment he’s im­plau­si­bly united,” Lawrence says. “But part of do­ing that is not be­com­ing tainted by look­ing like a typ­i­cal party fig­ure who, hav­ing run and lost, just de­fers to the nom­i­nee.” So San­ders has be­gun en­gag­ing in some un­char­ac­ter­is­tic be­hav­ior, pen­ning a flurry of news­pa­per op-eds and start­ing a fight over the party plat­form—a sort of sim­u­lacrum of how he imag­ines es­tab­lish­ment in­flu­ence is ap­plied.

Th­ese ac­tions don’t re­quire San­ders to com­pro­mise his be­liefs, but nei­ther are they likely to have much prac­ti­cal ef­fect. The plat­form is a purely sym­bolic doc­u­ment with no hold over the poli­cies pur­sued by the nom­i­nee. It’s usu­ally ig­nored. (As Trump put it to Bloomberg Busi­ness­week in May: “I don’t care who writes the plat­form. I have the loud­speaker.”) Al­though San­ders suc­ceeded in push­ing the Demo­cratic plat­form to the left—the lat­est ver­sion in­cludes a fi­nan­cial-trans­ac­tion tax, de­cries “the greed and reck­less­ness of Wall Street,” and blocks fi­nance ex­ec­u­tives from serv­ing on the boards of re­gional Fed­eral Re­serve banks—this is mostly a feel-good achieve­ment with few real-world im­pli­ca­tions.

“The plat­form is the ‘Miss Con­ge­nial­ity’ of the beauty pageant,” Frank says. “Do you re­mem­ber any sig­nif­i­cant plat­form fights? No. No­body does.”

San­ders vows to keep on fight­ing any­way. “This is a doc­u­ment that needs to be sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved,” he de­clared in a July 3 op-ed for the Philadel­phia In­quirer. “There were a num­ber of vi­tally im­por­tant pro­pos­als brought forth by the del­e­gates from our cam­paign that were not adopted.”

Many San­ders sup­port­ers cheer his fix­ity of pur­pose. That’s the essence of his ap­proach to pol­i­tics. Al­though with the course he’s cho­sen, he’ll prob­a­bly end up achiev­ing much less than he might have. When it be­came clear that Clin­ton would be the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, most peo­ple imag­ined that San­ders would re­turn to the Se­nate greatly en­hanced, where he and War­ren—pro­vided she doesn’t join the ticket—would form a pow­er­ful lib­eral van­guard. But this would re­quire San­ders to aban­don the role of gad­fly, which he ap­pears cu­ri­ously un­will­ing to do. “The ques­tion has al­ways been, will he change his tac­tics to be more in­flu­en­tial in the Se­nate?” Man­ley says. “I see no in­di­ca­tion that he will.”

He’s march­ing back to as­sume the same po­si­tion he held be­fore he ran for pres­i­dent: a one-man army in an in­sti­tu­tion that re­quires 60 votes— pure of heart, righ­teously an­gry, and al­most en­tirely in­ef­fec­tive.

The things that en­tice a run­ner-up to fall in line hold lit­tle ap­peal for some­one de­ter­mined to go it alone

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