Bernie Sanders’s ‘Scorched Earth’ Strategy Seems to Be Working

Bernie Sanders Holds Election Night Rally In Louisville, Kentucky
Berns so good. Photo: John Sommers II/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has no realistic path to the Democratic nomination. Despite the protestations of postmodern mathematicians, his campaign is no longer about who will represent Blue America in the main event this fall, but rather, how Hillary Clinton will choose to represent it.

The socialist senator still refuses to cop to this fact. Earlier this week, he suggested that anyone who thinks Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee must harbor a secret longing for authoritarian rule. And his campaign promises to take its fight to the convention, even in the (beyond likely) scenario that Clinton boasts a massive lead in pledged delegates when all the votes are counted.

In justifying this patently anti-democratic stance, the campaign has encouraged supporters to view its losses as illegitimate – reflections of a process rigged through too few debates, too many closed primaries, and too much cooperation between the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton. For some Sanders supporters, this critique has taken on the moral authority of the candidate’s jeremiads against the “rigged” financial system, magnifying the stakes of the primary fight and the animosity they feel toward its likely winner.

Nevada’s Democratic convention illustrated the hazards of such sentiments. There, Clinton won by 33 votes – after 56 pro-Sanders delegates were disqualified. A fight over exactly two pledged delegates devolved into a bitter melee. America’s worst leftists inundated the state party chairwoman with threatening phone calls. Sanders initially responded by condemning harassment only in the abstract – while condemning the unfair treatment of his Silver State supporters in great detail.

Elected Democrats responded by railing against the Vermont senator’s aggressive tactics. Liberal commentators warned that this “scorched Earth” strategy was self-defeating: At this point, undermining Clinton would only undermine his future influence within her party.

But over the past few days, a funny thing happened: A wave of polling data established that Sanders really is undermining Clinton’s prospects in the general election – and the Democratic Party began searching for bones to throw the senator’s way.

In late April, when national polls consistently showed Clinton prevailing over Trump by comfortable margins, Clinton allies were whispering to the Hill that she planned to take a “hard line” with Sanders, insisting the party’s left flank had already received its fair share of concessions. Since then, Clinton’s unfavorability rating with Sanders’s supporters has steadily increased – and her polling advantage over Trump has collapsed. Now, anonymous Clinton surrogates are singing a different tune.

She needs to do something in the coming weeks to show that she’s also trying to unify the party,” a Clinton ally told the Hill on Thursday, arguing that Clinton should look left for her vice-presidential pick.

Hillary Clinton’s biggest challenge is getting Bernie Sanders voters by her side,” Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons told the outlet. “The visual of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren would be everything.”

Earlier this week, pro-Clinton Democrats argued that the likely nominee should depose Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chair who has been a focal point for Sandernistas’ grievances over the primary process, and a longtime enemy of the party’s left flank owing to her support for payday lenders and opposition to the liberalization of marijuana laws.

There have been a lot of meetings over the past 48 hours about what color plate do we deliver Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s head on,” one pro-Clinton senator told the Hill on Tuesday. “I don’t see how she can continue to the election. How can she open the convention? Sanders supporters would go nuts.”

Talk is cheap, of course. But Sanders already banked a significant concession on Monday, when the party granted him nearly as many appointees to the convention’s platform committee as the (likely) nominee herself. Among the Vermont senator’s five picks were Cornel West – a harsh critic of Obama and card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America – climate activist Bill McKibben, and Arab-American Institute President James Zogby. Those selections should set up a contentious fight over the party’s official policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, many of Clinton’s six picks also hail from the party’s left wing, creating a progressive majority on the committee that is likely to deliver the Democrats’ most liberal platform on domestic policy in a generation.

To be sure, Clinton won’t have to run on that platform, just like Mitt Romney didn’t have to campaign on the GOP’s official opposition to creeping Sharia in 2012. But on Wednesday, Clinton moved in Sanders’s direction on domestic spending voluntarily – promising to expand her initial proposal for infrastructure spending. Clinton had previously promised to spend $275 billion on infrastructure over a five-year period, while Sanders has campaigned on a $1 trillion proposal (Donald Trump endorsed a similarly massive infrastructure build-up in his campaign book, though he doesn’t talk about it all that often).

It’s still possible that Sanders’s decision to cultivate his supporters’ antipathy for the Democratic Party will hurt his agenda in the long run. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes, for Sanders to reshape the Democratic coalition, he needs to keep his backers inside of it – a task that will be impossible “if they view the entire political system as irreversibly flawed.” And obviously, if a critical mass of young liberals in swing states embrace “Bernie or Bust” – and Donald Trump makes it into the Oval Office – Sanders will have little chance of living to see a more social-democratic United States.

But in recent days, Sanders has signaled a commitment to building his movement inside the Democratic tent, raising funds for a slate of like-minded state legislators, and for Wisconsin Senate candidate Russ Feingold. And, at least for the moment, Sanders’s willingness “to harm Hillary Clinton” appears to be only increasing his influence over her party. Politics ain’t beanbag. Neither, presumably, are political revolutions.

Sanders’s ‘Scorched Earth’ Strategy Is Working