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Bernie Sanders shouldn't go scorched-earth on Democratic Party

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses an election rally in Carson, California on May 17. Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses an election rally in Carson, California on May 17. Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders is still in it to win it. Which is a problem. Because he can't.

Hillary Clinton holds 1,768 pledged delegates — allocated through primaries and caucuses — to Sanders' 1,494. To overcome that deficit, Sanders would have to win 67 percent of all remaining delegates, including massive wins in Clinton-friendly states such as California and New Jersey. Barring an extraordinary shift, this won't happen. It's not a live possibility.

And yet Sanders is trying to get around these facts by arguing, in effect, that the will of his voters counts for more than the majority. In doing so, he isn't just fighting till the last vote for a worthy cause — he's deriding and disregarding the votes of the party's most loyal backers, voters who are key to any progressive project, now and in the future.

But the Sanders campaign doesn't seem to care. "While Mr. Sanders says he does not want Mr. Trump to win in November, his advisers and allies say he is willing to do some harm to Mrs. Clinton in the shorter term if it means he can capture a majority of the 475 pledged delegates at stake in California and arrive at the Philadelphia convention with maximum political power," reports the New York Times on the campaign's newest strategy — a scorched-earth run to the finish.

The reaction from mainstream Democrats, and even from a few Sanders supporters, has been decidedly negative. On the other end, Sanders' defenders say this is no different from what Clinton herself did in the 2008 primary, when she continued until the summer, as anti-Barack Obama anger and vitriol simmered in her camp. It's true there are real parallels and similarities. But there are real distinctions, too, that make Sanders' actions different in kind.

Let's compare Sanders' actions with Clinton's at this point in 2008. Like Clinton, Sanders has adopted an almost intransigent tone, even echoing elements of her old rhetoric. "I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," said Clinton in early May of that year, citing an Associated Press story that "found how Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me." A few days later, she would crush Obama in the West Virginia primary.

After Sanders won that same primary, he made a similar argument, saying that he is the only candidate who can win working-class voters. But this description of the electorate is true only if you omit blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Factor them into the population of "working people," and Democrats win that group, handily.

If it were just this rhetoric, Sanders staying in wouldn't be an issue. Things get heated at the end of a presidential primary, but there's no reason the losing candidate should bail before the end. That said, there are key differences between 2008 and now. Then, Clinton promised to run only to the last primary, to give every Democrat a chance to vote (and at that point, when it was clear Obama had the pledged delegates and superdelegates to win, she conceded). Now, Sanders vows to take this fight to the convention, even if — it seems — he's still behind in pledged delegates.

This is not just a bad look for Sanders. It's something uglier.

Sanders isn't just planning a run to the convention — he's also hoping to flip enough superdelegates from the Clinton camp to erase the difference in pledged delegates, giving him the nomination. It's a fair strategy (given the rules), but a curious one, given the extent to which Team Sanders has blasted superdelegates as unfair — another way the Democratic National Committee has rigged the primary.

Democratic leaders say they're worried, and it's easy to see why. In the past month, Sanders has switched gears, from a policy critique of Clinton to a process argument against the Democratic Party. The argument? That any outcome short of full deference to his campaign is evidence of corruption and betrayal. "The Democratic Party has a choice," he said in a statement, issued after a near riotous confrontation between Sanders and Clinton supporters in Nevada. "It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change — or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy."

Sanders will show no care or concern in his rhetoric or attacks, a fact emphasized by the degree to which a vocal minority of his backers believe the entire process has been rigged against them, with Clinton as the illegitimate winner of an unfair contest. There is a case that all of this is proper, that if Sanders wants to change the Democratic Party — and bring independent voters into the tent — he has to attack the nominating process and the institutional Democratic Party. It's a bad case. To start, the risk of a destructive drive to the convention — a divided party against Donald Trump — doesn't remotely justify the gains of a more open nominating process.

Sanders' most expansive argument is against "closed primaries," which have entered his stump speech as a fundamentally unfair part of the process. But closed primaries weren't created in response to Sanders — they are a long-standing feature. Critically, they are far from the least democratic part of the process. That goes to caucuses, which by their design preclude the vast majority of a given electorate from participating. If closed primaries are undemocratic for keeping out registered independents, then caucuses are undemocratic for keeping out everyone. Yet Sanders hasn't railed against them. And why would he? They've delivered his largest victory margins and have fueled his campaign.

All of this might be different if Sanders held any democratic legitimacy — a majority of the popular vote or a pledged delegate lead. But he has neither. Thirteen million people have voted for Clinton to be the Democratic Party's nominee versus 10 million for Sanders. If he were, somehow, to persuade superdelegates — i.e., elected officials and longtime party activists — to abandon Clinton, he would have negated those voters and their choice, after six months of arguing that the party must respect his supporters. A cynical observer might say that Sanders isn't angry with the lack of democracy as much as he's angry at losing. In any case, it's more than a bad look for his effort — it's ugly.

Sanders should fight until the last vote, and he should use his influence to put his stamp on what Democrats do in the fall. But this scorched-earth campaign is foolish. It helps neither him nor his message.

Bernie Sanders shouldn't go scorched-earth on Democratic Party 05/22/16 [Last modified: Sunday, May 22, 2016 5:00pm]
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