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State of the Left - United States

Fighting on two fronts

Claire O'Connor - 19 May 2016

Why is Bernie Sanders staying in the US presidential race? And what does it mean for Hillary Clinton?

As the Republican party starts to coalesce around their presumptive nominee, there are mounting fears of a bruising split in the Democratic party. It is Philadelphia, not Cleveland, that’s looking like a hot mess.

The first question is ‘Can Bernie win?’: most pundits say no. Clinton has 1748 pledged delegates plus 521 super delegates to Sanders 1491 plus 41. To win, a candidate needs 2382 of the pledged delegates. However conventional wisdom has called it wrong a lot lately. Sanders is actually going to win more contests this cycle than Clinton did in 2008, according to Chris Kreuger. Sanders has 21 contests under his belt, compared to 27 for Clinton, with two more likely from Virgin Islands, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Montana and – the big one on June 7 – California with 475 delegates. Clinton won 23 contests in 2008. And super delegates are not bound and could switch if the convention is contested.

If he cannot win, why continue and risk being blamed for President Trump? Sanders is exerting enormous influence on policy and by staying in the race he has forced Hillary to take more leftwing stances on a number of issues including a higher minimum wage, opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and Keystone XL pipeline. Last week Hillary took a step to the left on health care: despite opposing for months Bernie’s single-payer health system, Hillary said she is now in favour of the “public option”, allowing people “55 or 50 and up” to buy into the Medicare system. He can continue to affect the policy agenda by influencing Hillary’s pick of personnel for the top jobs as she tries to unite the party post-July.

If Bernie doesn’t win, what’s next for him and his supporters? Sanders has been a lifelong activist. He seems to relish the fight, believes in collective action and change from the bottom-up. At age 74, he is unlikely to be a candidate again and is not positioning himself for VP or 2020. If Sanders wants his movement to continue, as appears likely, it would likely focus on campaign finance reform. He has proven there is strength in numbers – having raised $210m from 2.4m contributors – and could repurpose his popular movement as a counterweight to the power of big money in politics.

If he loses, will he ask his supporters to back Clinton, just as she did Obama in 2008? He does not seem to be preparing them for the turn: if anything, Sanders intensified his anti-Hillary rhetoric in his speech after the Kentucky and Oregon primaries. It will be a character moment for Sanders as he figures out how to be true to his ideals and the people he has fired up. These include the white working-class traditional democratic base, many of who have been hurting and feeling ignored by establishment politics. And the millennials, who are more disaffected than progressive per se, angry at being saddled with college debt and no job prospects and share the feeling that the system is rigged against them. These are the people who have flocked to Bernie and whom he has given voice, but there is no guarantee they will vote for Hillary and not Trump.

Will Bernie have any leverage with the Clinton campaign? They are not best pleased, to put it politely, to be fighting on two fronts. She is being forced to spend time and money in primaries like Kentucky and Oregon, instead of general election swing states like Virginia or Ohio. It hurts her being attacked from the left and the right while having to appeal to both.  Being pulled to the left to win the remaining primaries but not too far left that she deters moderate Republicans.

If she wins, the character attacks turn even nastier. The New York Times revealed Trump’s campaign is preparing to use “psychological warfare tactics”, such as those he employed to defeat “‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz, ‘Little Marco’ Rubio and ‘Low-energy’ Jeb Bush”. Calling Hillary corrupt and holding her responsible for Benghazi and Bill Clinton’s infidelities hurt her and deflect attention from his vulnerabilities, particularly his treatment of women. 

With Trump on top of the GOP ticket, the Democratic National Committee sees an unexpected opportunity to potentially win back the House and the Senate, and yet their election machine is on hold until they have an official nominee. It is hardly the scorched-earth campaign necessary to beat Trump. While Hillary insists Trump is out of sync with the GOP in an attempt to appeal to disaffected Republican voters, Democratic operatives are keen to tie Trump to vulnerable Republican candidates in races that all of a sudden seem competitive.

Readers of State of the Left are familiar with the tension on the left between principles and power. Evolution or revolution? Sanders shouts that the system needs changing; Hillary sets out how. Many readers will be glad that the Democrats are debating Medicare and the minimum wage. Others will be frustrated by the process, arguing it is less about ideology at this point and more important to win. All of us will be watching what happens next. What if it’s Trump v Sanders?

Claire O’Connor is former head of policy for the British Labour party. She lives in Washington DC and runs Leadership Rethought, a consulting firm that teaches, coaches and consults on adaptive leadership challenges

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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