Why Bernie Sanders Still Isn’t Endorsing Clinton

Bernie Sanders Campaigns in Burlington
“I’m Bernie Sanders and I don’t endorse this message.” Photo: Matt McClain-Pool/Getty Images

The FBI just roped off Bernie Sanders’s last path to the Democratic nomination. America’s most-committed Sandernistas had been awaiting James Comey’s Tuesday morning press conference with all of the eager anticipation of small children staying up to see Santa Claus.

Despite his famous disinterest in Hillary Clinton’s “damn emails,” the Vermont senator had fantasized about a late-breaking indictment, according to Politico, and tuned in to the corporate media to hear Comey’s remarks.

But the FBI director had no charges to recommend. The bomb was defused, the elephant in the room tranquilized. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.

Granted, Sanders had already admitted that much, and indicated that he plans to pull the lever for Clinton in November. But what he hasn’t done is endorse her. And the socialist senator indicated Tuesday that the FBI’s decision would not impact his thinking on that front.

Which raises the question: Why not? Does remaining the Democratic Party’s wet blanket really aid Sanders’s cause? His friends on Capitol Hill certainly don’t think so. At a meeting with House Democrats Wednesday, Sanders was met with boos when he refused to say whether he planned to endorse Clinton.

Most liberal pundits take a similar position. And they’ve produced a series of columns that collectively speak in the voice of a disappointed Jewish mother, asking the Vermont senator, “Why can’t you be more like your colleague, Elizabeth?”

Throughout the Democratic primary, Elizabeth Warren conspicuously withheld her endorsement of the Democratic front-runner and advocated for an economic agenda to the left of Clinton’s platform. But once the writing was on the wall, Warren became a team player. She offered Clinton an enthusiastic endorsement, subjected her general-election rival to an epic series of Twitter burns, and campaigned with the presumptive Democratic nominee in Cincinnati.

Warren’s “good cop” approach to pulling Clinton left has a lot to recommend it. First, she’s earned the close ear of the woman most likely to be America’s next president. Second, she’s further heightened her national profile amid the media’s breathless coverage of her prospects in the “veepstakes.” And third, she’s leveraged one and two to advance at least one policy that a Democratic White House could actually — unilaterally — implement: a drastic increase in antitrust enforcement to crack down on big business.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues that, in his stubborn refusal to admit defeat, Sanders has allowed Warren to steal his “starring role” as the left’s anti-Trump crusader, while squandering his leverage over the Democratic standard-bearer in the process. Bouie’s central evidence for the latter claim is that Clinton has already secured the backing of most Sanders supporters, even without their champion putting in a good word:

In May, 20 percent of Sanders supporters said they would back Trump over Clinton in the general election. In June, that number is down to 8 percent. Overall, 81 percent of Sanders backers have rallied to Clinton, surpassing the 74 percent of Clinton supporters in 2008 who fell in behind Barack Obama. By any measure, the Democratic Party is unified.

Had Sanders pledged his allegiance to Clinton after the final primary ballots were cast, he could have taken credit for the migration of his voters. Instead, he’s allowed his rival to see how little she needs his help.

This is a reasonable assessment. But it’s worth noting that:

1. Polls have a habit of changing

2. Bernie Sanders has points of leverage beyond his most intransigent supporters.

As my colleague Ed Kilgore has noted, a defiant Sanders could cause all manner of headaches at Clinton’s coronation in Philadelphia. The senator will come to the convention with no small number of die-hard delegates ready and willing to provide a hungry media with the stories of intra-party conflict it craves. Beyond that, Sanders still has his grip on one of the most coveted email lists in modern politics, and enjoys the benefit of a Republican nominee hell-bent on increasing his relevance in the general-election campaign.

Trump has name-checked Sanders in nearly every major speech he’s given in the last month. And his relentless focus on reiterating the socialist senator’s critiques of Clinton’s record on free trade has likely increased the value of a full-throated Sanders endorsement.

What’s more, the Vermont senator has won concessions while withholding that endorsement. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, the latest draft of the Democratic platform has Sanders’s fingerprints all over it. Beyond the $15 minimum wage and expanding Social Security, the platform contains wonkier provisions on financial reform that come straight from the democratic socialist’s box of pet causes: Among these are reforming the process for selecting the Federal Reserve’s regional board members, prohibiting Wall Street banks from being able to pick their own credit-ratings agencies, and reinstating postal banking, to expand low-income Americans access to financial services (beyond those proffered by payday lenders).

Beyond the platform’s paper promises, Clinton has continued to incorporate aspects of Sanders’s agenda into her own, announcing a plan to provide free public college to families with incomes below $125,000.

And like Warren, Sanders has recently focused his advocacy around a policy goal that a Democratic president could unilaterally realize: tearing up the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

It’s impossible to know whether Sanders would enjoy more influence, in both the present and future, had he followed Warren’s lead. Ultimately, the senator’s commitment to taking a “bad cop” approach to ideological policing is more philosophical than tactical.

Sanders wants to cultivate a progressive movement that shares his adversarial attitude toward his newly adopted party. In the final major speech of his campaign, Sanders implored his supporters again and again to “transform the Democratic Party” into a vehicle for democratic socialism. Throughout his campaign, the former independent called on supporters to put ideology above party, commitment to principles above (supposed) pragmatism. According to Politico, Sanders reiterated that message to his colleagues on the Hill Wednesday, explaining that “elections are not necessarily about winning but about transformations.”

This is the ethos that has animated Sanders’s entire political career — it’s what led him to call for a primary challenge when Barack Obama floated Social Security cuts in 2011. And it’s one of the many reasons that Sanders isn’t going to be the Democratic nominee.

There are plenty of sound arguments to make against this approach to politics. But a recent meeting of the Democratic platform committee helped illustrate its appeal.

A majority of the committee’s members oppose the TPP. As does the party’s 2016 nominee (at least officially). But the committee voted against expressing that sentiment in the Democratic platform because, as Congressman Elijah Cummings put it, doing so would “undercut the president of the United States.”

In the Democratic Party Bernie Sanders hopes to build, undercutting opposition to misguided legislation would be viewed as the more pressing concern.