As Sanders Campaigns in California to Change the Democratic Party, How Far Can He Push It?

Can Bernie Sanders change the Democratic Party from the inside out? Several campaign developments this week have posed that question. The Sanders campaign’s latest TV ad before California’s June 7 primary features Sanders asking, “What choice do Californians have in this election?” His reply, “The biggest one of all. You have the power to choose a new direction for the Democratic Party.”  


That followed Monday’s Democratic National Committee announcement that it will allow him to appoint five people to the party’s 15-member 2016 platform-writing committee. Sanders picked outspoken progressives including Cornel West, one of the nation’s leading racial justice critics; environmentalist and climate change activist Bill McKibben (who has been arrested during anti-Keystone Pipeline protests); and Arab-American Institute co-founder James Zogby (who in 2008 testified to the DNC’s platform committee about changing America’s anti-Palestinian foreign policies and opposing Islamophobia).

Then on Wednesday, the Washington-based outlet The Hill ran a lengthy report suggesting that Democrats in Congress were discussing whether the DNC’s controversial chairwoman and longtime Hillary Clinton loyalist, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, might have to be replaced to bring the party together after the nominating season ends to satisfy Sanders' supporters. “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,” it quoted a Democratic senator as saying.

These points underscore the question of how much is Sanders changing the party, even if he does not emerge as the 2016 presidential nominee. Clinton’s campaign, and much of the media, are looking ahead and asking what she has to do to beat Donald Trump. Many things, different outlets have said, from connecting to tens of millions of people who didn’t vote during the primaries and caucuses, to figuring out how to respond to Trump’s bullying antics better than any of the 16 senators and governors he beat for the nomination. 

But the Democratic primary season is not over, even if June 7 portends to be one of the weirdest days yet, with Clinton likely declaring she is the nominee as polls close in New Jersey, which would be hours before the polls close in California; and Sanders possibly winning in the Golden State. The latest polls this week show him trailing Clinton by 2 points, within the margin of error. Adding to that was Wednesday’s news that a State Department inspector general concluded that Clinton’s use of a private email server violated department policy and posed security risks. (The report found that former secretaries of state such as Colin Powell have also used private email servers.)

Taken together, these developments suggest Clinton Democrats and Sanders Democrats need each other far more than they are willing to admit in order to win in the fall. That raises intriguing questions about whether the party can evolve from the inside out in response to what its two leading presidential candidates have done, which is split the party along ideological and generational lines.

The answer remains to be seen. But it also is much more relevant now, heading into the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July, than to speculate about the implications of theoretical matchups between every combination of Sanders, Clinton and Trump in states that won’t be voting for months.

The platform committee assignments shows some willingness by the party’s Clinton wing to make a peace offering to Sanders’ supporters. The party’s presumptive nominee have never allowed their opponent’s representatives to help draft the platform—which, to be fair, is often a vaguely worded document filled with lofty goals much like a State of the Union speech. The Democrats’ 2012 platform, for example, called for a higher federal minimum wage, but didn’t specify how much; supported natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking; and touted President Obama’s achievements reining in Wall Street.

These omissions and self-congratulatory stances are not going to impress the Sanders platform team. However, just what he can achieve with drafting the 2016 platform is an open question.

“I don't know how any of it's going to go down, and I don't know how much effect the platform will eventually have,” Bill McKibben said. “My job is to push for the things that he's pushed for in the campaign: an end to fracking, keeping fossil fuels in the ground on public lands, a price on carbon to reflect the damage it does in the atmosphere, and so on.” 

No matter what is put on paper, McKibben said the advocacy must continue. “My guess is, even in the best of circumstances, movements would still need to work very hard to make Democrats live up to their commitments,” he said. “Hell, I told Bernie, only half in jest, that I'd doubtless find myself chained to the White House even if he was living there. But commitments are always useful.”

Having a seat at the platform-writing table many only be the start of Sanders’ demands—especially if he wins California even as Clinton clinches the nomination in New Jersey. That would signal that the party needs to accommodate him further, which could involve replacing Debbie Wasserman Schultz as DNC chair, giving Sanders and his allies primetime speaking slots on the podium—like the way Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke before Bill Clinton in 2012—or even scrapping the party’s fundamentally anti-democratic superdelegate system.

Can the Democratic Party be changed from the inside out? Many people have long concluded no, but like much related to Sanders’ role in the 2016 campaign, many traditional expectations have been upended.

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