Can Bernie Undo the Damage He’s Done to Clinton?

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It’s going to take a bit more than issue position comparisons to convince these people to vote for Clinton.Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

At a time when Hillary Clinton’s campaign seems to be pivoting from constant appeals to disgruntled Republicans to a recognition of its big problem among left-leaning millennials, former rival Bernie Sanders is now out on the trail trying to convince his former supporters to get with the program.

His initial stops in Ohio did not exactly bring back memories of excited young folks rocking and rolling to the Bern; he drew 200 in Akron and 600 at Kent State.

But in important respects Sanders is seeking to undo the damage he did to Clinton’s candidacy — especially among millennials — during the long and occasionally bitter nomination contest. And in his pitch against the temptation of voting for a minor-party candidate, Bernie is also at odds with the example he has set in his own political career, and with his case for a “political revolution” that eschews conventional politics.

To an embarrassing extent, Sanders is making the same argument pro-Clinton progressives made against him in the primaries: The distance between his policy agenda and hers are matters of degree, not kind.

As Sanders praised Clinton in Ohio, he highlighted their agreed-upon policies regarding free public university and college tuition for low income families and their shared dedication to picking a SCOTUS nominee who would be against the Citizens United decision.

The bulk of Sanders’ surrogate speeches more often focus on his own policy priorities and positions with Clinton’s name tagged on the end assuring his crowds that she “understands” the importance of progressive issues.

But the logic of his own “movement” requires him to treat the election of Hillary Clinton as a relatively minor way station on the Road to Revolution:

“This is [the] time to elect Hillary Clinton and then work after the election to mobilize millions of people to make sure she can be the most progressive president she can be.”

That’s not the most inspiring endorsement I’ve ever heard. Nor is this, uttered in an interview with Seth Meyers:

We gotta get beyond personality. What I would ask those people who voted for me, even if you have concerns with Clinton — you don’t like this aspect? I understand that. But look at the hard issues that impact your lives and your neighbor’s lives, and then think whether or not you want Donald Trump to become president. I think if you frame it in that way, our people will end up voting for Clinton.

For months and months during the primary season Sanders and his surrogates constantly suggested that Clinton’s “personality” — her Wall Street associations, her cynical poll-driven centrism, and her “poor judgement” in backing the Iraq War — were a bigger problem than her policy positions, and made her untrustworthy. In that respect the Sanders take on HRC merged with that of hostile conservative and mainstream media, and helped make her what she is today: the second-most-unpopular presidential nominee in living memory.

Sanders’s plea against third-party “protest votes” (as articulated in a Facebook post) also strikes a less than compelling note:

This is not the time for a protest vote, in terms of a presidential campaign. I ran as a third-party candidate. I’m the longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. I know more about third-party politics than anyone else in the Congress. And if people want to run as third-party candidates, God bless them! Run for Congress. Run for governor. Run for state legislature. When we’re talking about president of the United States, in my own personal view, this is not time for a protest vote.

The message: Yes yes yes yes yes to third parties, but not this time. The door is thus opened to a back-and-forth argument in the minds of former Sanders voters as to whether this is or isn’t the right time to vote for Johnson or Stein (or maybe a more openly anti-capitalist option like the Socialist Workers Party, for which Bernie himself served as a presidential elector in 1980).

No matter how badly Bernie Sanders wants to stop Donald Trump, his past is at odds with his present intentions. If he really wants to help Hillary Clinton, he probably ought to get his talking points from her campaign instead of trying to rationalize a vote for HRC as part of a smart plan to kick her to the curb.