Why Clinton Shouldn’t Expect Sanders to Go Quietly, Even at the Convention

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders
If Bernie Sanders’s supporters are denied the ultimate prize, they are going to want a lot of compensatory moral victories. Photo: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

During the many months she has been the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton has had plenty of time to think about how she will deal with a disappointed Bernie Sanders campaign between the time she clinches the top spot on the ticket and when it is formally conferred at the convention in Philadelphia in late July. One obvious precedent Sanders could follow is the one created the last time a candidate narrowly lost the nomination in a long and sometimes bitter competition. That would be Hillary Clinton’s in 2008.

In the wake of Obama’s successful 2008 general-election campaign and Hillary Clinton’s subsequent service in his administration (and more generally her status as the representative of his policy legacy), it’s easy to forget the bad feelings between the two camps that developed during the primaries. Here’s how Politico’s John Harris and Mike Allen described the atmosphere on the eve of the Democratic convention that year:

As Democrats arrived here Sunday for a convention intended to promote party unity, mistrust and resentments continued to boil among top associates of presumptive nominee Barack Obama and his defeated rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The much-feared rupture in Denver did not occur because Clinton, her husband, and her campaign chose to surrender unconditionally. That made considerable sense from her point of view. For all the passions her candidacy aroused, especially among women, it was not an ideological crusade in which she and Obama represented fundamentally different paths ahead for the Democratic Party. The biggest threat to her future political interests lay in being held partly responsible for a party defeat (no one at that point was anticipating the blowout that eventually developed). Being gracious and demanding no significant concessions not only came as a great relief to the nominee and his staff; it set the stage for her next steps as a party leader.

But if anyone in the current Team Clinton expects Bernie Sanders to emulate her 2008 surrender, they’d better get over it quickly. It’s not happening. 

We know this in part from the horse’s mouth in remarks just last week:

If I can’t make it — and we’re going to try as hard as we can until the last vote is cast — we want to completely revitalize the Democratic Party and make it a party of the people rather than one of large campaign contributors,” Sanders said in an interview on the progressive Web show “The Young Turks”

Sanders also listed policy demands he would make of Clinton, including a single-payer health care system, a $15 an hour minimum wage, tougher regulation of the finance industry, closing corporate tax loopholes and “a vigorous effort to address climate change.”

It’s important to understand that the Sanders campaign began as an effort by ideological progressives to “keep Hillary honest,” and then with success became an insurgency against the policies and political strategies of both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Unlike Clinton (and, for that matter, Obama) in 2008, Sanders is not the embodiment of some disenfranchised identity; he’s not the candidate of septuagenarian Jewish men. And he presumably has no personal political future to protect. It’s all about shaping the future of the party, and if he cannot do that as the nominee himself, he can make his mark via his own convention speech and Clinton’s, supplemented by concessions on the platform and perhaps the future Clinton administration.

So the template for Sanders isn’t Clinton ‘08, but something more like Kennedy ‘80 or Jackson ‘88 — candidates who lost in the primaries but had the leverage to make all sorts of demands on the winner at the convention, and chose to exercise that power. The Kennedy analogy could be especially relevant: Jimmy Carter, desperate to get out of the convention undamaged, caved to virtually every platform demand made by Kennedy’s people, and gave him a big speech that was devoted not to party unity but to the liberal “dream that shall never die.”

If Clinton wants to tamp down the ideological fires Sanders has helped set and spread, she may need to be similarly flexible, or so says veteran progressive writer Martin Longman:

If I were John Podesta, I’d be making up a very big gift bag for Bernie. This would include consultations on the veep, and concessions on many key appointments. Sanders will want a say in the staffing at Treasury, for example. He may have other demands, too. He’ll need to get some very visible wins that he can show his voters so they can feel like what they’ve done has made a difference and can continue to make a difference.

What Clinton cannot afford is what ultimately happened to Jimmy Carter in New York in 1980: the triumphant nominee ending “his” convention chasing Kennedy around the platform in a vain effort to obtain the traditional unity hand-clasp.

So once she’s locked down the nomination, the negotiations with Team Sanders should begin. No matter how many delegates she has, there will be no surrender. If Bernie’s army of supporters can’t have the ultimate prize, they are going to want many moral victories.  

Sanders’s Convention Demands Will Be Extensive