Does Bernie Sanders Really Deserve Any Concessions From Hillary Clinton?

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Bernie Sanders Holds Election Night Rally In West Virginia
Primaries, not demands, are supposedly how intra-party differences get worked out. Photo: John Sommers II/2016 Getty Images

What Bernie Sanders Wants” is the headline of a Politico article on the extensive concessions the presidential candidate expects from Hillary Clinton if he loses to her in Philadelphia. A similar Time article is slightly more precise: “Bernie Sanders Will Support Hillary Clinton But He’s Sticking to Some Key Demands.”

As it happens, I’ve written myself about how HRC would be wise to offer Team Sanders the fool’s gold of platform concessions and maybe the promise of a look at primary laws and procedures. And I’ve also talked about why Sanders, as the leader of an ideological initiative to move the Democratic Party to the left, can’t be expected to go quietly like Clinton did in 2008. 

But none of these practical considerations can quite explain the expectation in Bernieland, and beyond it in the political commentariat, that of course Sanders has the high moral ground and he’s the one who should be dictating terms to his vanquisher. 

Yes, there’s no question many Sanders supporters (and probably the candidate himself) believe they represent “true” progressivism and even (despite his decades-long reluctance to call himself a Democrat) the “real” soul of the “real” Democratic Party. This authenticity, moreover, is frequently contrasted with the hollow, compromised, and numb “centrism” that Hillary Clinton is supposed to represent, attributable to corruption or timidity. But isn’t the very purpose of party primaries to air such differences and find out what actual partisans (supplemented in some though not all places by independents leaning toward that party) think about them? And if so, why is it the (apparent) loser who is claiming the spoils, and the right to shape the party’s future? It doesn’t make a great deal of sense except as an exercise in projected self-righteousness. 

There is a different and more calculated rationale for a Sanders platform challenge: that Hillary Clinton’s own supporters, who mainly prefer her on non-ideological grounds, agree more with Bernie on the issues that separate them than with their own candidate. That may even be true with respect to single-payer health care, though polling on the subject has been more than a bit suspect (the usual simplistic monniker of “Medicare for All” isn’t terribly descriptive of a system that might extract lifelong payroll taxes and premiums from some people and nothing from others for the same benefits).

If the Sanders campaign really does purport to speak for all Democrats on key issues, it would make far more sense for Sanders to call on Clinton to allow delegates a free and open vote on various platform planks than to demand that she abandon her own positions for his. She could then always rationalize any differences as a matter of delegates articulating ultimate progressive goals while she promotes feasible means for accomplishing them in the here and now. 

What that approach would exclude, however, is the high dramatics of demands, concessions, surrender, and conquest that Sanders’s current trajectory suggests — not to mention the certainty of a divisive convention and the possibility of serious damage to the Democratic ticket.  If, however, the real goal of Sandernistas is to humiliate Hillary Clinton even as she assumes the official mantle of party leadership, then they should not be surprised if she fights back.

Why Should Sanders Get to Dictate Terms to HRC?