Now that Donald Trump has the GOP nomination wrapped around his stubby little finger, should Bernie Sanders get out and let Hillary Clinton and Democrats focus all their energy on turning to the general election? With John Kasich and Ted Cruz dropping out, that means Trump will likely face a far less contentious GOP convention in July — perhaps making it more urgent that Democrats have a smooth resolution to the nomination process on their side.
But top Democrats I spoke with today don’t feel any particular sense of urgency about Sanders getting out of the race. However, they are gently urging Sanders to take into account just how much higher the stakes are, now that Trump is the nominee, as the Vermont Senator calibrates his approach to the final stretch of the Dem campaign.
Those closely following the delicate dance underway among the key players — the Clinton and Sanders campaigns; the White House; major progressive figures such as Elizabeth Warren — say there are several factors about Sanders that are worth keeping in mind. One is that Sanders is not the type of guy who responds to pressure. He has long been a bit of a loner figure in Congress and the Senate, they say, and does not mind being at odds with the Democratic establishment — indeed, he relishes that position, as we’ve seen by his year-long campaign against it.
At the same time, however, top Dems also believe Sanders has an unappreciated pragmatic streak that tends to surface after he has pushed the envelope as far as possible and gotten all he could in the process. For instance, Sanders pushed very aggressively to make the Affordable Care Act as much to his liking as possible, frustrating some involved in the bill’s progress, but in the end, he backed the ACA and advocated for it.
Sanders might do something similar again now. Having spent a year building a national constituency behind his unabashed economic progressivism and calls for reform to our rigged political system, which very well could have an impact beyond the Dem primaries, he could continue to engage in a spirited contest of ideas with Clinton, but without suggesting she lacks integrity, and without forcing a contested convention in the end.
“Bernie is the kind of guy who responds to a sense of mission,” veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake tells me. “He’s a guy who responds to a cause. He has a critical role to play right now. If Bernie mobilizes voters, keeps up the critique of Trump, and continues to energize people around an economic agenda, that’s useful.”
“It’s not a question of him getting out or not,” Lake continues. “It’s how he stays in. He can be a very powerful force. But the thing we ought to be worried about is that Trump now gets to reinvent himself.” Lake added that she hopes Sanders will not “divide Democrats” and “distract from the central focus on holding Trump accountable.”
Sanders has kept up the sharp criticism of Clinton over her ties to Wall Street, and Trump has already boasted that he’ll be using that criticism against her. Democrats hope that Sanders remains mindful about giving Trump more fodder to go after her, and hope he doesn’t make good on his vow to contest the convention. Sanders senior adviser Tad Devine has conceded that, if Sanders does not make major gains in closing the pledged delegate count, he will not be able to flip super-delegates to his side. It is unlikely that Sanders will make big pledged delegate gains, which theoretically should mean there would be no reason to take the battle for super-delegates all the way to the convention; instead, he might concede in June.
Democrats expect that in coming days, Sanders will tone it down, and that in the end, he will probably refrain from contesting the convention. They note that he could even try to use his leverage to influence the party’s agenda in the fall elections without damaging the party’s chances. If so, they see no reason for him to get out.
“Continuing to attack her and creating problems at the convention would redound to his discredit,” leading Dem pollster Mark Mellman tells me. “If he does choose to continue competing, as long as he does not attack her and create tensions at the convention, it won’t matter to the outcome in November.”
“There’s a difference between trying to make your points on policy, which he’s been effective at doing, and trying to take down the front-runner and damaging your potential nominee,” Elaine Kamarck, an expert on party rules at the Brookings Institution and longtime fixture in Democratic politics, tells me. “If he wants to stay in and discuss the platform, that’s obviously his right. But at this point, we’re on the verge of a choice between someone eminently sensible and qualified, and someone who is a real wild card. It’s a little frightening having him out there trying to take down the sensible candidate.”
Kamarck recalled that she worked at the Democratic National Committee during the 1980 campaign, when Ronald Reagan used Teddy Kennedy’s primary attacks on President Jimmy Carter to great effect in the general election, in ads like this one (which was recently unearthed by Philip Klein):
“I watched Reagan use Kennedy’s attacks on Carter, and it was not pretty,” Kamarck continues. “Sanders has always had his own agenda and he’s always been unto himself. But last night, the stakes suddenly got really high.”