Thursday, May 19, 2016

Process Obsessions Aren't Enough to Sustain Sanders Past June

Yesterday, I wrote a long post interpreting the melee at the Nevada state convention on Saturday as reflecting the broader tendency of liberals to get bogged down in process arguments when denied political success, which can often prove counterproductive to their long-term goals. The Bernie Sanders campaign has become increasingly preoccupied with procedural issues, citing them as excuses for their inability to defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

The New York Times provides additional evidence with an article eye-catchingly headlined "Bernie Sanders, Eyeing Convention, Willing to Harm Hillary Clinton in the Homestretch." The piece seems intentionally written to provoke nervous Democrats into uncontrollable bouts of hand-wringing over the possibility of an angry and undaunted Sanders waging a kamikaze mission against Clinton all the way to, if not after, the national convention this summer. Stripping away the various inferences, suggestions, and on-background complaints from the Sanders campaign, however, leaves us with the following on-the-record quote from Sanders strategist Tad Devine, which is hardly a call to storm the barricades:

The only thing that matters is what happens between now and June 14 [the date of the final primary]. We have to put the blinders on and focus on the best case to make in the upcoming states. If we do that, we can be in a strong position to make the best closing argument before the convention. If not, everyone will know in mid-June, and we’ll have to take a hard look at where things stand.

It seems more likely that Sanders and his top aides don't really know today what they'll do once the primary season is over, and there may be some internal difference of opinion on the subject. That they remain privately as well as publicly preoccupied with process questions is clear: the Sanders camp is still nurturing long-held grievances about perceived unfair treatment by the Democratic National Committee, and one suggested set of demands at the convention would involve unspecified "fundamental changes to how presidential primaries and debates are held in the future."

But complaints about nomination procedures, however valid they might be, are simply not important or motivating enough at the mass level to sustain a presidential campaign—especially a campaign that will not be able to claim the most votes or the most pledged delegates once the primary calendar is complete. Superdelegates, party activists, and Democratic voters are unlikely to view the Sanders campaign's gripes as justifying a post-primary battle over the nomination in the face of a general-election race against Donald Trump. It's one thing to continue a debate within the party over substantive policy priorities that might affect millions of people, but it's hard to run a serious campaign for the office of president of the United States that is primarily dedicated to the cause of exacting revenge on Debbie Wasserman Schultz.