What if the Nevada fracas is a preview of the national convention?
For months, I’ve been reassuring other Democrats that party unity wasn’t going to be a problem. Sure, the Bernie/Hillary rhetoric might sound bad sometimes, but that’s how these things go. When we got to the convention this summer and Hillary proved that she really did have the delegates, Bernie would do the right thing, just like Hillary did in 2008.
It’s easy: Hillary agrees to put some Bernie-like language in the platform (which won’t be that hard for her, since most of his proposals are just more ambitious and optimistic versions of something she’s proposing anyway), maybe some rule changes make things easier for the next insurgent candidate, the VP appeals to people in both camps (Elizabeth Warren would be ideal, but if she wants to stay in the Senate it shouldn’t be that hard to find somebody else), and everybody is happy. In a prime-time speech, Bernie gives his supporters a chance to congratulate themselves on a hard-fought campaign and yell really loud for him one last time, and then he lays out all the common values that make it essential that Clinton become president next January rather than Donald Trump. Everybody winds up on the podium waving their arms and smiling into the national-network cameras as the credits roll.
That could still happen. If I had to bet, I think I’d still say that most of it will happen. But this week for the first time I started to have some real doubts and some real fears. So I started looking into it.
Talking myself down. I’d don’t think she’s done it for years now, but Rachel Maddow’s show used to have a regular “Talk Me Down” feature. For one segment, Rachel would put aside her calm and collected persona and let her fears about something run wild. Then she’d bring on an expert guest to explain to her why that level of panic wasn’t warranted yet.
Sadly, I don’t have a rolodex full of experts I can call to talk me down. So (with some help from publicly available sources) I’m going to have to play both roles. But I think the basic format works for this topic. So I’ll start by letting my fears run.
The Sanders progression. For months now I’ve been watching the Sanders campaign shift its focus. In the beginning, it was a purely positive campaign about the kinds of goals Democrats ought never to lose sight of, whether they seem politically feasible right now or not: health care as a right, protecting democracy against the rule of big money, government infrastructure projects to create full employment, union rights, voting rights, a livable wage for all workers, and affordable education for everyone.
That was the message I was attracted to and ultimately voted for in the New Hampshire primary.
That positive message is still at the Sanders campaign’s core, but little by little it has been joined by an anti-Hillary-Clinton message: She is corrupt and untrustworthy. She is a Republican posing as a Democrat. She is a weak candidate who will lose to Donald Trump. She has taken money from the wrong people, so no matter what she is saying now, ultimately she will do their bidding.
Last summer I went on a Hillary research project, and I didn’t find much support for that vision of her. I came out liking Hillary. I think it’s important to keep pressuring her from the Left, but I expect to be mostly content with a Hillary presidency.
And more recently, a persecution narrative has become a third part of the Sanders campaign: The Democratic Establishment will stop at nothing to give the nomination to Clinton, no matter what the People want.
To a degree, that narrative was justified. For example, the original debate schedule — since adjusted to include more debates — seemed crafted to give unknown candidates as little room as possible to break out. But as the campaign has worn on, everything that didn’t benefit Sanders has become part of the persecution narrative. Sanders did better in open primaries where Independents could vote, so closed primaries — which have existed since the beginning of the primary process many decades ago — were part of the Establishment’s conspiracy. (Caucuses, which are even less democratic than closed primaries, benefited Sanders, so they were not a problem.) Any election-day glitch — even the ones caused by Republican officials, and even if the effect on the Clinton/Sanders race was unclear — was part of the Democratic Establishment’s plot to steal the election for Hillary.
Sometimes rationales flipped overnight, with no apparent soul-searching or justification. Initially, it was a horror that superdelegates might reverse the will of the People (as expressed in the primaries) and give the nomination to Clinton because they thought she was more electable. Then, as it because clear that the People were actually voting for Clinton in larger numbers than Sanders, the Sanders campaign embraced the opposite argument: Superdelegates should reverse the will of the People and give the nomination to Sanders because he is more electable.
Esquire‘s Charles Pierce expresses his opinion on the persecution narrative harshly, but he’s not wrong.
I voted for Bernie Sanders. I even wrote about why I did here at this very shebeen. But if anybody thinks that, somehow, he is having the nomination “stolen” from him, they are idiots.
Nevada. So now we come to Nevada. In the caucuses in February, the voters went for Clinton 53%-47%. But that wasn’t the end of the story, because in Nevada’s arcane process the statewide caucuses just lead to the county conventions, which then lead to the state convention where the delegates to national convention are supposed to be chosen.
The county conventions happened in April, and a combination of lackadaisical organizing by the Clinton campaign and Sanders backers finding an exploitable hole in the rules turned the tables: Now it looked like Sanders would have an advantage going into the May state convention. February’s apparent 20-15 national-convention delegate split for Clinton appeared likely to shrink to 18-17. (Imagine the outcry if everything had been reversed: if Sanders had won in February, but then Clinton supporters found a backdoor way to take some of those delegates away.)
But again, it’s an arcane process. Sanders supporters were entitled to more state-convention delegates than Clinton supporters, but there are rules about credentials. Those rules are available to both campaigns, and it’s a campaign-organizer’s job to make sure than your delegates jump through all the appropriate hoops. At this stage, the Clinton people did a better job than the Sanders people, so at the May 14 state convention, Clinton narrowly had more credentialed delegates than Sanders. The ultimate result was a return to Square One: Clinton will get the 20 national convention delegates it looked like she had won back in February.
There’s been a lot of charge and counter-charge about exactly what went down at the state convention, but the accounts that have the ring of truth to my ear are the ones from Politifact and TPM’s Tierney Sneed. (I also found this on-the-floor view from a Clinton delegate to be enlightening.)
Here’s how it looks to me: After the Sanders campaign leaders in Nevada realized they’d been out-organized by the Clinton people, they decided to bury that fact inside the persecution narrative: The Evil Democratic Establishment had stolen the convention for Clinton. The Sanders campaign had been seeding that ground for months, so their delegates accepted that explanation without question and reacted with an understandable amount of anger. (The insults and threats that expressed that anger were still over the top, though.)
Bernie’s reaction to Nevada didn’t increase my confidence in him. His condemnation of his supporters’ bad behavior seemed perfunctory. (“It goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals.”) The stronger message was that the process is corrupt and his people’s reaction had been justified. Josh Marshall’s response was harsh, but not too different from what I was feeling:
This, as I said earlier, is 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.
Or maybe it sets you up for an even bigger mess this summer in Philadelphia.
My fear. Most primary campaigns end the way the Republicans’ just did: As candidates get to a point where they have no credible winning scenario, they drop out. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz … they all got to a point where they couldn’t predict victory with a straight face, so they quit.
Not everybody does that. In 2008, Clinton herself hung on until the last primary before dropping out and endorsing Obama (though that race was considerably closer than this one). Sometimes losing candidates go all the way to the convention, like Ron Paul did in 2012 or Gene McCarthy did in 1968.
When you take a campaign to a convention that is not going to nominate you, you do it for some other reason. Maybe you want to register your protest over an important issue, like the Vietnam War in 1968. Or you might be looking ahead to future elections. (The 1968 Democratic Convention started a process to change the rules that had allowed Humphrey to win the nomination without competing in the primaries. McGovern’s 1972 nomination couldn’t have happened otherwise.) Or maybe you want to use the convention battle as part of your narrative for the next cycle. (Hillary in some sense did that in 2008; her motion to nominate Obama by acclamation, her prime-time speech, and the way she and Bill campaigned for Obama in the fall impressed some Obama supporters — me, for instance — and set her up well for this year’s campaign.)
What I want to believe — and do, most of the time — is that Bernie Sanders is going to the convention looking for the kinds of things Hillary can offer: platform concessions on progressive issues, rules changes that will make the next insurgent candidate more viable, a prime time speech to inspire his supporters to become a long-term movement, and so on.
But after Nevada, I started worrying about something else: What if the thing Bernie wants out of the convention isn’t a concession? What if it’s a fight? What if the culmination he sees for his “political revolution” rhetoric and his narrative of persecution by the Democratic establishment is to have his supporters dragged out of the convention hall by force? That would probably hand the White House to Trump, but it might also rupture the Democratic Party in some way that leads to an overall realignment of the two-party system.
What if that’s the goal?
It’s always like this. Naturally, I’m not the only person to have this worry, or at least this area of worry, so I went looking for how others were dealing with it, in hopes that they might talk me down. Appropriately, one of the people I found was Rachel Maddow, who discussed it on her show Wednesday.
At this point in the primary process, it’s always like this. There is always acrimony and upset between remaining candidates at this part of the race. Parties just do this. It is to be expected. It’s very, very, very rarely fatal.
Making a similar point, Matt Yglesias pulled up video of an extremely harsh exchange between candidates Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton in 1992.
[The Clinton/Sanders contest] feels unusually intense and vicious to many heavy consumers of internet news. Thanks to social media, lots of supporters of both candidates are now spending their free time acting as amateur advocates for their preferred campaign. This makes the race more intense and immediate than many past campaigns, and there has certainly been a lot of name-calling on Twitter.
But the actual campaign has been, by the standards of campaigns, remarkably issue-oriented and low-key compared to past races.
I sort of knew that, but it was helpful to be reminded of just how ugly things got in, say, 2008, before they got better. It turns out that parties don’t just forgive their internal spats, we very often literally forget. So the next time it happens, it’s always like “It’s never been this bad before.”
Once I started remembering, I remembered all the way back to the first year I watched conventions on TV: 1968, when I was 11. Even that year, after Mayor Daley’s “police riot” and the chaos on the streets in Chicago, nearly all of the McCarthy Democrats eventually came home. (The Wallace Southern conservative white Democrats had begun their trek to the Republican Party and weren’t ever coming back, but that was a whole different story, which I’ve told before.) After falling ridiculously far behind in September, Humphrey came back almost all the way, making 1968 one of the closest presidential elections ever.
Both sides have the same scenario in mind. Those recovered memories helped a little, but I didn’t really regain my optimism until I started chasing the links that my Sanders-supporting Facebook friends were posting.
Yes, of course there were some Bernie-or-bust type posts, and some that put the worst possible construction on anything having to do with Clinton or with anybody who isn’t 100% for Sanders. But a lot of the voices are simply asking for “respect”. Sanders’ only supporter in the Senate, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, says:
If you want to bring people together, they have to feel heard and they have to feel respected and well-treated.
And then he sounds remarkably conciliatory:
I believe that once a candidate has a majority of pledged delegates — so not superdelegates, but the pledged delegates — (and) has a majority of the votes cast, that the party will have made its decision and we need to do the hard work of coming together,” he said. “Should Secretary Clinton win these key categories, I think the conversation will begin about how to bring the sides together so we can go into the convention united, go out of the convention even more united, and make sure that this charlatan, this self-promoting charlatan, Donald Trump, does not become president.
A lot of the other Sanders-supporters are mainly just saying that it’s up to Clinton to make the first move. Jason Linkins, for example:
the responsibility of unifying the party falls to the winner of the primary, not the loser. To anyone who thinks otherwise: Come on, now. This is literally the job of the person who becomes the presidential candidate, not the person who is going to be pursuing politics in some other office. An election is not a contest between warring factions, where the winner gets to spend the next four years stunting on the losers. The electoral process will decide which candidate will serve all Americans. And all Americans are owed something, no matter how the votes were cast.
This is how magnanimity works.
The more I read, the more I came to the conclusion that the majority on both sides have the same ideal scenario, the one I talked about in the first section. That seems like a long time ago now, so let me repeat it:
Hillary agrees to put some Bernie-like language in the platform, maybe some rule changes make things easier for the next insurgent candidate, the VP appeals to people in both camps, and everybody is happy. In a prime-time speech, Bernie gives his supporters a chance to congratulate themselves on a hard-fought campaign and yell really loud for him one last time, and then he lays out all the common values that make it essential that Clinton become president next January rather than Donald Trump. Everybody winds up on the podium waving their arms and smiling into the national-network cameras as the credits roll.
But — and here’s the real sticking point right now — large numbers of people on both sides are worried that the other side won’t play its role. Bernie’s supporters are worried that Clinton won’t reach out to them and Clinton’s supporters are worried that Bernie will spurn all offers so that he can stomp away mad.
My reading of this is that we’re all victims of one side or the other of the polarizing propaganda. Hillary won’t reach out because she’s a bought-and-paid-for tool of Wall Street, and Bernie will spit on her attempts to reach out because he’s a neo-Leninist bomb-thrower. The media is fanning both of those flames, because conflict draws eyeballs. (In reading all these stories, it’s important not just to read the selected quotes from campaign spokespeople, but to consider what they were asked, and whether there was any way to answer that question differently.)
But when I forget all that nonsense and re-anchor myself in reality, I wind up where Matt Yglesias is:
The differences between Clinton and Sanders are real and important, but they amount to an argument about whether to try to shift the country a little bit to the left or a lot to the left. Under the circumstances, it would be very odd for it to produce a lasting, unbridgeable divide if earlier elections have not.
Let’s flesh out that analysis by using the minimum wage as a proxy for a long list of issues. Sanders wants a $15 federal minimum wage. Clinton wants a $12 federal minimum wage with higher minimums established by state or local laws in areas with high costs of living. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Trump wants no federal minimum wage at all. (“Let the states decide,” he says.)
Is it really going to be that hard for Democrats to come together?
I have no way of knowing what’s going on in the minds of the two candidates right now. Maybe they really are mad at each other, or maybe not. But ultimately, I find it hard to believe that either is going to go against the general will of his or her supporters. And among Hillary supporters right now, I find very little desire to show Bernie who’s boss. Among Bernie supporters, the number who want to burn down the Democratic Party seems pretty small.
We’re due for another two weeks or so of ugliness. But after the last major primaries on June 7, the pressure on both candidates — pressure from their own supporters — to work something out is going to be enormous. So I still think we’re going to get that scene everybody wants: Clinton and Sanders standing together in Philadelphia as the credits roll.