Bernie Sanders Still Has Some Leverage Over Hillary Clinton

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Bernie Sanders Campaigns in Burlington
Bernie Sanders still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve if he chooses to play them.Photo: Pool/2016 Getty Images

Bernie Sanders’s late fade in the Democratic primaries (a bad loss in New Jersey and a surprisingly large loss in California), compounded by the quick defection of a few prominent supporters (e.g., Senator Jeff Merkley), is leading some observers to speculate that he’s already lost his leverage over the Democratic convention. If he cannot credibly threaten Clinton’s nomination, and has already signaled he will strongly support the nominee in the general election, why should Team Hillary pay him more than lip service? Hasn’t she already leaned in his ideological direction enough, to the theoretical peril of her ultimate prospects?

But there are two points of leverage Sanders still maintains.

First is the possibility that well-chosen Sanders platform demands could command enough support from Clinton delegates to force them onto the nominee. That could lead to media reports of HRC “losing control” of the convention. In past conventions for both parties, such contingencies have sometimes led the putative nominee to concede to platform demands in order to avoid any public loss of face. This time it could significantly help Sanders to put his stamp on the party platform, one of his original campaign objectives. 

The second leverage point is far more general but nonetheless important: the threat of dissension and unpleasantness that could materially undermine the convention’s value as a projection of Clinton’s message and of Democratic unity. Bored media attendees will naturally be trolling in Philadelphia for stories of unhappy Sanders supporters exhibiting their displeasure at the proceedings and the inevitable minimization of Bernie’s role in the party and the general-election campaign. An aggressive exercise of discipline by Sanders and his campaign is the only thing that could more or less eliminate that risk. So under-the-radar-screen negotiations will focus on mere appearances as much as the heavy substance of the platform — and actually more, since the images of the convention will linger long after any arguments over carbon taxes versus regulation have been forgotten.  

So no wonder Sanders is arguing his campaign has a purpose now that he’s no longer pretending to have the ability to prevent Clinton’s nomination. And his leverage may be enhanced by the fact that a 75-year-old U.S. senator probably cannot be bought off with future political considerations. Perhaps the Sanders campaign is about the future of the Democratic Party. But for Sanders himself, the future is now.