Let Bernie Be Hillary
Understandably, Bernie Sanders is now doing the same thing Hillary Clinton did in 2008. Eight years ago, near the end of the 2008 campaign, Clinton gave what I called at the time Hillary’s Checkers speech (after Richard Nixon’s 1952 effort to persuade Eisenhower to keep him on the GOP ticket). Rather than make a concession speech right away, despite Barack Obama’s clear triumph in winning the votes needed to clinch the nomination, Clinton told supporters at Baruch College in New York City that she needed a few days to consider her options. Two days after that speech, she met with Obama. On June 7, she conceded and endorsed him.
That’s what Sanders needs now. It isn’t easy to concede defeat, particularly after you’ve come so close to victory. Over the past year, Sanders has gone from being a little-known senator from a small state to a powerful figure who has inspired millions of people. As many have observed, Sanders won the battle of ideas. The Democratic primary was fought on his issues. But he lost the nomination and now he has to figure out his next steps.
After meeting with President Obama today, Sanders said he would continue his White House bid through the convention but he also pledged to work with Clinton to unify the Democratic Party and defeat Donald Trump. “I look forward to meeting with [Clinton] in the near future to see how we can work together to defeat Donald Trump and to create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1 percent,” Sanders said. It was clearly a signal that he’s ready to endorse Clinton and mobilize his followers to endorse her.
This gesture goes beyond what Hillary Clinton said at a similar point in the 2008 Democratic presidential contest. At her Baruch College speech eight years ago this week, Clinton addressed her supporters watching on television: “I want to hear from you. I hope you’ll go to my website at HillaryClinton.com and share your thoughts with me and help in any way that you can.”
At the time, she held off on acknowledging that she’d lost the party’s nomination and insisted that her next steps would be shaped, at least in part, by what her supporters wanted her to do—the 18 million people who voted for her in the primary, whose voices she said should be heard. Clinton asked her followers to contact her directly by using her campaign website. In fact, Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, introduced her as “the next president of the United States of America!”
During her speech, members of the audience chanted, “Denver, Denver,” referring to the site of the Democratic convention that August.
Some observers believed Clinton was trying to mobilize her supporters to put pressure on Obama to put her on the ticket as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate. Other pundits speculated that she might be willing to settle for another deal with Obama—helping her retire her campaign debt, appointing her to the Supreme Court, or helping her elbow Harry Reid out of the Senate Majority Leader’s job, and thus help unify the party and enlist Clinton’s supporters in Obama’s campaign.
Her speech later that night was evidence that she was willing to play hardball. That speech was almost entirely about her commitment to public service, her stance on issues, her claim that she won more votes than Obama, and the implication that she represented a large segment of Democratic voters that Obama would need to win in November.
It isn’t clear when Clinton and Obama discussed the idea of her becoming Secretary of State. But that was the prize she won for eventually endorsing and campaigning hard for Obama.
Bernie Sanders says he doesn’t want to be in the Clinton cabinet, but he does want influence over the platform, over the next head of Democratic National Committee, over rules changes for the next Democratic election season, over Clinton’s policy priorities after she takes office (including the budget, since he will chair the Senate Budget Committee), and perhaps influence over some cabinet appointments. All of this is reasonable. The important question now is how hard Sanders will work to persuade his followers to support, campaign for and vote for Clinton. And after the election, what Sanders does to build on his momentum to mobilize his supporters around important issues to build the “grassroots political revolution” he says we’ll need to change the country.
In the meantime, rather than attack Sanders for not ending his campaign and immediately embracing Clinton, let’s recognize that he needs time to move to the next phase. In other words, we should let Bernie do what Hillary did eight years ago.