Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has no chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination at this point, short of a minor miracle. But depending on how he plays his cards over the coming weeks, the champion of his party’s liberal wing could sway Hillary Clinton’s key decisions.
A progressive Democrat like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, might look a lot better to Clinton as a vice presidential running mate if Sanders gives his blessing.
The 2016 Democratic platform might also be heavily rewritten this summer to include some of Sanders’ best lines challenging the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, seeking to downsize big banks on Wall Street or even a rethinking of U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.
And Democratic Party rules, ranging from the role of “super delegates” in choosing a nominee to the exclusion of independents from some state primaries, might get a fresh scrubbing with Sanders pushing for reforms.
In the wake of Clinton’s 16-point drubbing of Sanders in Tuesday’s New York Democratic primary, there appears to be an emerging consensus within the party that Sanders must begin to adjust to the inevitability that Clinton, the former secretary of state, will amass the necessary delegates to claim the nomination this summer.
Clinton now has 1,930 of the 2,383 pledged and “super” delegates she will need to win the nomination, compared to just 1,189 delegates for Sanders. If Clinton has another good week next Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Rhode Island, experts say it will be pretty much “game over.”
Sanders and his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, insist that the campaign will carry on to the convention, even if Clinton amasses enough pledged delegates to win the nomination before then.
But with no readily identifiable path to the nomination, Sanders must begin to consider his options for a graceful glide path to the convention – one that simultaneously lowers the tensions between him and Clinton while maximizing his leverage to influence the convention and the fall campaign.
By any measurement, Sanders has waged a remarkable campaign that has galvanized millions of new, young voters and produced 15 victories so far in primary and caucus states – with more to come.
And with essentially all the money he needs to keep his campaign afloat through the convention in July, Sanders is free to continue pounding away at Clinton if he chooses while piling up more delegates.
Sanders will enter the national convention in Philadelphia with an impressive total of national delegates – many of them rabid supporters who resent Clinton and her policies – and with plenty of leverage to influence the shape and tone of the convention.
But it will be a difficult balancing act – for both Sanders and Clinton. And history shows that brilliant political also-rans like Sanders can seriously undercut the party’s nominee.
The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts badly upstaged President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 Democratic convention in New York with a fiery, uncompromising speech after a protracted battle.
“If I were advising Bernie, there’s no reason to drop out before the end,” Norman Ornstein, a political scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said Thursday. “Amass more delegates, because the more you have at the convention – the greater the proportion – the more bargaining power or leverage you have at the convention.”
Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said, “There’s no chance Bernie will be picked as VP, so that’s a bridge too far.”
But short of garnering the second spot on the ticket – which seems preposterous given the huge differences between the two candidates on most things– there is plenty that Sanders could still achieve at the convention and during the fall campaign.
Here are five things Sanders could ask for – and likely would get:
- A big say in the choice of Clinton’s running mate. Clinton is going to have a tough time winning over many of Sanders’ true-blue supporters, but one way of doing that is bringing on board one of their own. One obvious choice would be Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the long-time consumer advocate and banking industry scold who many liberals had hoped would challenge Clinton.
The Boston Globe has reported that senior Clinton campaign officials say Clinton is willing to consider choosing another woman to run on the ticket. Whether the country is ready to shatter the glass ceiling by electing a presidential team of two women is open to conjecture. But if Warren doesn’t make it, Clinton can choose from other prominent liberal Democrats, including Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Merkley, who recently endorsed Sanders.
- Ensuring that Sanders’ top advisers, including Jeff Weaver and Tad Devine, end up well positioned in the general election campaign. If Sanders is going to be a big player in the fall campaign to beat Donald Trump, he will need his people closely coordinating with Clinton’s national team.
- A prime-time speaking slot at the convention. Sanders will ask for and get an opportunity to unleash his tirade against the excesses of Wall Street, income inequality and a corrupt campaign finance system. The risk for Clinton is that the speech might remind voters of the residual deep divisions between the two candidates and achieve little in terms of unifying the party.
- A big say in drafting the Democratic platform. No doubt, there will be platform promises on raising the federal minimum wage to between $12 and $15 an hour; a rebuke to some international trade deals that Sanders says have cost millions of Americans jobs; and the need for Wall Street prosecutions, and campaign finance reform.
- A commitment to changing the rules for selecting the nominee the next time around. Sanders has complained bitterly about the current party rules – both at the national and state level – arguing that they are not truly democratic and bar greater voter participation.
One likely target: the role of elected party leaders and officials known as “super” delegates who automatically vote at the convention and typically support more establishment candidates like Clinton. Sanders wants to diminish their role, or force them to reflect the popular will of their states. Another would be state party rules like the ones in New York and Pennsylvania that prevent independents from participating in “closed” primary elections.