The Sanders Campaign Is Divided Over How It Wants to Die

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Bernie Sanders Campaigns In SF Bay Area One Day Before California Primary
Rage against the dying of the Bern.Photo: Scott Olson/2016 Getty Images

The night Hillary Clinton won the New York primary, the Sanders campaign sent two radically different messages about how it planned to proceed. In an interview with the Associated Press, senior Sanders adviser Tad Devine said the campaign would “sit back and assess where we are” after the five northeastern primaries on April 26. At roughly the same time, the senator’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told MSNBC that there would be nothing to assess until the superdelegates cast their official votes at the convention.

We’re going to go to the convention,” Weaver told Steve Kornacki. “It is extremely unlikely that either candidate will have the requisite number of pledged delegates … so it is going to be an election determined by the superdelegates.”

Weaver won that argument. Bernie Sanders lost four of five states on April 26, but continued campaigning aggressively, nonetheless, arguing that a win in California – combined with his superior performance in head-to-head polls with Donald Trump – would convince superdelegates to throw the election to him in Philadelphia.

Now, with Clinton set to clinch a majority of pledged delegates when the final six states cast their primary ballots Tuesday night, the Devine-Weaver divide is resurfacing – and their boss doesn’t seem to know whose side he’s on.

On Monday night, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Sanders campaign is divided between the “Sandernistas” – longtime Bernie backers from his time in Vermont and Congress who want to rage against the dying of the light – and those with broader ties to the Democratic Party, who believe Sanders’s agenda would be best served by uniting the party against Trump. Devine, who advised Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry, speaks for the latter.

What will happen hopefully when the voting is done, our two campaigns will begin to talk once more to one another and figure out where the common ground is,” Devine told the Journal on Monday night.

Weaver, who has worked as a Sanders operative since the mid-’80s, told the paper a different story.

The plan is as the senator has described it: to go forward after Tuesday and keep the campaign going to the convention and make the case to superdelegates that Sen. Sanders is the best chance that Democrats have to beat Trump,” Weaver said. “The trajectory is the same regardless of the outcome in California.”

In most of his recent statements, Sanders sounds more like his campaign manager. On Monday night in Los Angeles, Sanders told supporters that a win in California would give him “enormous momentum” with superdelegates going into the convention. But earlier in the day, he struck a more “Devine” note – asked about whether he would endorse Clinton before the convention, Sanders replied, “Let me just talk to you after the primary here in California where we hope to win. Let’s assess where we are after tomorrow before we make statements based on speculation.”

For Weaver, there’s no cause for such assessments. Nothing hinges on the outcome in California. But his candidate sounds less certain. And not without reason. There are a lot of powerful voices whispering into his other ear.

Over the weekend, Sanders and President Obama spoke for over 30 minutes, according to CBS News. While the content of the conversation is unknown, the president has argued that Tuesday’s results will be decisive – and has indicated that he intends to endorse Clinton well ahead of the July convention.

Meanwhile, Sanders’s sole backer in the U.S. Senate, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, has called on Sanders to drop out once Clinton secures a majority of pledged delegates. The Vermont senator’s Clinton-backing colleagues – along with virtually every other elected Democrat – obviously agree.

If Sanders was looking for a way to sustain his campaign past a loss in California, the Associated Press’s decision to declare Clinton the primary’s winner on Monday night may provide one justification. In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Weaver argued that the AP’s call – which was based on a revised count of Clinton’s advantage among superdelegates – was “suppressing voter turnout in six states across the country.”

But the Vermont senator has something to lose in defying the will of the Democratic Party. Should Democrats recapture the Senate, Sanders is in line to become chair of the Budget Committee – a powerful post, especially when held by a politician with a national following and first-rate donor list. If the democratic socialist opts for political revolution over party unity, however, his colleagues could ostensibly deny him that position.

Plus, Sanders’s superdelegate strategy works a lot better as a rationale for giving Democrats in California a chance to make their preferences known than it does as a means of actually winning the nomination. Barring an FBI indictment or medical catastrophe, Democratic elites are not going to overturn the will of their voters to give the party’s nod to a man who has been a Democrat for a little over a year.

But Bernie Sanders isn’t known for being terribly sensitive to political pressure. And at least one voice in his campaign is telling him to go down swinging. We’ll know very soon how loudly all the other voices speak.