What Does Bernie Really Want If He Can’t Be the Nominee?

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Speaks Against GOP's Plan For Social Security And Medicare
Sanders has to be tempted by the prospect of inheriting Democratic Party leadership without a fight if Clinton loses in November.Photo: Win McNamee/2015 Getty Images

Probably like a lot of readers, I read Matt Yglesias’s piece in Vox reciting the reasons Bernie Sanders would benefit from a Democratic victory in November even if he’s not the nominee, nodding my head at every particular. Yeah, her policy positions are generally consistent with his. Yeah, as a prominent senator from the president’s own party and the acknowledged leader of an important party faction, he’d have a lot of leverage over appointments. Yeah, if things went really well and Democrats won the Senate Bernie would get to chair the Budget Committee, a good platform from which to argue for different national priorities. Beyond that, I don’t doubt that Sanders is sincere in wanting the best for his adopted party, and would be horrified by the advent of a Trump presidency. Yglesias’s exposition should pour very cold water on the idea (I’m looking at you, Salon) that somehow Sanders and Trump represent twin wings of a united working-class attack on the Establishment.

But on the other hand … there has to be a devil on Bernie’s shoulder whispering to him that the tangible and moral benefits of a Clinton victory are small potatoes as compared with the prospect of inheriting the dessicated, demoralized husk of a major party desperate for change and convinced once and for all that Clinton/Obama-style “centrism” is a disaster.

Seriously, a Clinton victory makes her the leader of the party for the next four to eight years. No matter how much leverage Sanders and like-minded Democrats can amass, Clinton’s views are going to be more influential in government and in party councils than are Bernie Sanders’s by a ratio of about 100–1. As for the allure of the Senate Budget Committee, a Democratic victory this November followed by the inevitable anti-incumbent backlash and compounded by a terrible Senate landscape in 2018 means this bauble would be snatched away from Sanders very quickly.  

If, on the other hand, Clinton manages to lose (despite loyal and energetic efforts on her behalf by Sanders), a President Trump who has every prospect of massive failure could deeply divide an already riven GOP and make Congress and many other down-ballot offices fall like ripe fruit into the laps of a Democratic Party whose most prominent and popular post-election leader would likely be — Bernie Sanders. 

And then, as the devil on his shoulder knows, there is one more data point: Bernie’s going to be 75 years old the day after the general election. How long does he have to complete his life’s work of making social democracy rather than worn-out liberalism the default left-of-center perspective in this country? Will he have to wait out another Clinton before a “political revolution” is within sight?

Again, there’s almost zero chance Sanders himself will take a dive, even a shallow one, between the Democratic convention and November. But the two paths I’ve outlined are very real, if not for him than for some of his followers, who are already a bit tipsy with “heightening the contradictions” thinking about the uselessness of the Democratic Party.