Bernie Sanders: What's his endgame now?

Even 24 hours ago, there was the faintest hope he could be the nominee. Now, Bernie Sanders is shifting gears. 

John Minchillo/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders listens as audience members cheer during an election night campaign event at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena Tuesday in Huntington, W.Va.

Bernie Sanders knows he can’t win the Democratic presidential nomination. He said as much, even before losing decisively to Hillary Clinton in four out of five primaries Tuesday.

Yet Senator Sanders remains in the race. But he now fills a wholly different niche than he did even 24 hours ago. Gone is Sanders the candidate with a slim remaining hope that he could still be the Democratic nominee. Enter Sanders the message candidate.

And the message is this: that Sanders has tapped into a current of discontent within the Democratic base, particularly among young people, that’s not going away. And he intends to press his agenda all the way to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this summer.

“The people in every state in this country should have the right to determine who they want as president and what the agenda of the Democratic Party should be,” Sanders said in a statement Tuesday night. “That’s why we are in this race until the last vote is cast.”

The intent, he added, is to “fight for a progressive party platform” that includes a $15 minimum wage, an “end to our disastrous trade policies,” Medicare for all, breaking up big banks, ending fracking, free public college, and a carbon tax to address climate change.

The upside for Sanders is that he keeps his issues on the public radar, and continues to nudge the more moderate Mrs. Clinton to the left. The risk is that he looks like a sore loser, as some have called him, and prevents the Democratic Party from fully focusing on the task at hand: defeating the Republicans in November.

Tuesday's results

Clinton – who won Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut, and lost only in Rhode Island – pivoted anyway toward a message of Democratic unity and toward a general election fight in which she hopes to attract independents as well as Republicans uncomfortable with the direction of their party.

“If you are a Democrat, an independent or a thoughtful Republican, you know their approach is not going to build an America where we increase opportunity or decrease inequality,” Clinton said. “So instead of us letting them take us backwards we want America to be in the future business.”

In her pitch to Sanders supporters, Clinton sought to portray herself  as a progressive with a pragmatic streak

“We have to be both dreamers and doers,” she said.

Clinton also reminded voters of the historic nature of her candidacy, now placing her firmly in position to become the first female major-party nominee in American history and potentially the first woman president. In the process, she took a dig at Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who swept all five states Tuesday.

“Now, the other day, Mr. Trump accused me of playing the, quote, woman card. Well, if fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in,” Clinton said.

For Sanders, a self-described social democrat who has fought for decades on the issues now at the heart of his campaign, the 2016 race remains, in a way, a dream come true. The once-obscure senator from Vermont is now a national figure, with a national platform to press his cause.

And for many reasons, he truly has no reason to drop out.

The case for Sanders staying in

Exhibit A is his incredible fundraising. Most candidates will stay in a race as long as they have two nickels to rub together, and Sanders has plenty. He has outraised Clinton three straight months – average donation $27, as the rally chant goes – and his “take” is accelerating. In March alone, he raised $44 million, a monthly record for the Vermont social democrat.

Exhibit B is his huge rallies. Who can argue with the exhilaration Sanders must feel when he takes the stage to address thousands of screaming fans?

Exhibit C is his party affiliation – or lack thereof. Sanders isn’t really a Democrat. He may say he is (sort of) for the purposes of this presidential race, but when faced with pleas to step aside for the good of the party, he shrugs. In his world, the “party” is the establishment, and that’s what he’s fighting.

Exhibit D is the “what ifs.” There remains a chance that Clinton could be indicted over her use of a private e-mail server, and her handling of information now deemed classified, while she was secretary of State. The financial doings of the Clinton family foundation represent more unknown territory with potentially bad optics.

If Clinton were forced from the race, Sanders would be the last person standing for the Democratic nomination. True, Vice President Joe Biden could jump in, though that would offend many voters’ sense of fairness – especially the Sanders voters, whose support will be needed in November, no matter who wins the Democratic nomination.

Exhibit E is history. Many a pundit has pointed out that in 2008, after a spirited primary season, then-Senator Clinton dropped out of the presidential race and embraced her rival, Barack Obama. But that didn’t happen until June of that year, after all the primaries were over. Then-Senator Obama still won the election.

So for now, at least, it’s probably too soon to claim that Sanders is doing irreparable harm to Clinton’s campaign. Clinton has high negatives for a likely nominee, but the Republicans are pounding her much harder than Sanders is. Remember that Sanders took one of Clinton’s biggest Achilles’ Heels – her e-mails – off the table in their first debate.

Remember also the “PUMAs” of 2008. It’s an acronym whose meaning isn’t suitable for a family newspaper, but it stood for Clinton voters claiming they’d never vote for Obama simply for the sake of “party unity.” Most Clinton voters ended up backing Obama anyway.

Let’s also be clear: Even if Sanders doesn’t actually intend to take his challenge of Clinton all the way to the convention floor in Philadelphia, why should he and his strategists say that now? In politics, candidates are fully “in it” until they’re not.

Sanders has 'won' already

Sanders, in a way, can already claim victory. He has already pushed Clinton to the left on trade; chances are, she would not have rejected the Obama-backed Trans-Pacific trade deal absent Sanders’s objections.

Sanders has also established $15 as the liberal benchmark for raising the minimum wage, no doubt a spur toward Clinton’s support for the Fight for $15 advocacy campaign. Clinton prefers to push for a $12 federal minimum wage, citing political feasibility, but has said she’d sign a bill raising the federal minimum wage to $15. 

Sanders says he’s waiting to see what a Clinton platform looks like before he decides how much to campaign for her. In an MSNBC interview last week, Sanders called the process a “two-way street,” suggesting she has to move more toward his philosophy before he’ll help her.

“I want to see the Democratic Party have the courage to stand up to big-money interests in a way that they have not in the past, take on the drug companies, take on Wall Street, take on the fossil fuel industry, and I want to see them come up with ideas that really do excite working families and young people in this country,” Sanders said. 

In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” last week, Clinton said that when she dropped out of the 2008 race, 40 percent of her supporters were unwilling to vote for Obama. So she got to work.

“I nominated him at the convention. I went from group to group, even as late as the convention, convincing people who were my delegates to come together, to unify,” she said. 

It’s also worth pointing out that by facing a competitive primary to the bitter end, Obama was in fighting trim for the general election – and organized in all 50 states. Clinton may not be happy with Sanders’s continued campaign, but he has at least given her a window into how a sizable portion of her party’s voters see the world.

For now, Sanders holds a lot of power.  He can join hands with Clinton at the convention or he can keep fighting. If he chooses the latter path, he could do serious damage to the Democratic Party. But the more likely scenario, say Democratic strategists, is that Sanders declares moral victory and backs Clinton – if not enthusiastically.

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