Super Tuesday Moves Clinton Toward Nomination, Sanders Toward Symbolic Victories

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Bernie Sanders Holds Super Tuesday Campaign Rally In Vermont
Still fighting — but for what?Photo: Spencer Platt/2016 Getty Images

On Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton took some measured steps forward toward winning the Democratic presidential-nominating contest. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders took some measured steps backward toward his original role as a protest candidate trying to “keep Hillary honest” and carry the torch for progressives dismayed by the last two Democratic presidents.

It’s not as though Sanders got blown out on Super Tuesday. Yes, Clinton’s margins in the South, and among the African-American and Hispanic voters who have in fact turned out to be her “firewall,” were daunting. But as of this writing, Sanders has won not only Vermont but also Oklahoma and is leading in both Minnesota and Colorado caucuses. An apparent narrow loss to Clinton in Massachusetts is the only thing that kept Sanders from winning the absolute maximum of five states in which he had any chance tonight. Given proportional-delegation awards, he’ll do reasonably well for someone doomed to lose on a particular day. 

Moreover, Sanders has some promising turf not far ahead, from caucuses in heavily white states like Kansas, Nebraska, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, to Rust Belt states where he hopes to make hay over Clinton and Obama administration trade policies. But the reality is that his coalition of white liberals and young voters just isn’t looking like a real threat to Clinton’s nomination anymore. 

So it’s not surprising that the language creeping into Team Bernie’s rhetoric is increasingly that of an ideological crusade focused on long-range party-shaping goals rather than the nuts and bolts of winning a nomination contest. 

Politico published an extensive “insider” look at the Sanders campaign on the morning of Super Tuesday that concludes with this fascinating tidbit:

They’re already prepping the fallback plan: 10 areas, including killing Obama’s trade deals and changing the super-delegate process that they’re going to organize around and try forcing into the Democratic platform.

Worst case, we’re going to Philadelphia with 1,500 delegates. Best case, we’re going to win,” [Sanders senior advisor Larry] Cohen said. “Either way, we’re going to change things.”

Perhaps this is what Sanders himself meant tonight when he said his candidacy is “not just about electing a president … It’s about transforming America.”

That sounds like code for “you can’t call us losers based on this one election cycle.”

What Sanders’s young cadres may not know, however, is that there is a long history of primary winners making concessions on the platform and other symbolic matters valued by those they vanquished in exchange for peace, quiet, and party unity. Notable examples include Gerald Ford’s acceptance in 1976 of a platform plank all but condemning his secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, and Jimmy Carter’s acceptance in 1980 of a government-guaranteed employment plank he had no intention of implementing. Yes, it’s been a long time since conventions were disturbed by such potential disagreements, but the dynamics haven’t changed: Just as Hillary Clinton was happy to make ideological concessions to the left as she began her current presidential campaign, the odds are very high she’ll give the Sanders camp any reasonable platform concessions they demand because they just don’t matter to actual voters; they’re the fool’s gold of presidential politics. 

As Clinton’s delegate totals add up, however, symbolic concessions may be all Sanders can secure. They will, after all, give him the honorable distinction of having kept Hillary Clinton from entering the general election and later on the White House having triangulated her way to the political center. And that was pretty much about all his original supporters expected.