(Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Opinion writer

On Face the Nation, Hillary Clinton was asked if she’s trying to nudge Bernie Sanders out of the race, and offered a reply that, at first hearing, sounded like a standard-issue denial. But buried in her answer was an interesting challenge to progressives — one that suggests a way for the Sanders movement to reconstitute and reinvent itself after the primaries are over:

“I’m three million votes ahead of Senator Sanders, nearly 300 pledged delegates ahead of him. He has to make his own mind up.

“But I was very heartened to hear him say last week that he is going to work seven days a week to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t become president. And I want to unify the party. I see a great role and opportunity for him and his supporters to be part of that unified party, to move into not just November to win the election against Donald Trump, but to then govern based on the progressive goals that he and I share.

“We both want to raise the minimum wage. We both understand you have got to rein in bad actors on Wall Street and in corporate America to make sure they don’t wreck Main Street. We have a lot of the same goals. And I hope we can unify around them.”

Clinton did not merely call on Sanders and his supporters to help unify the party in order to defeat Donald Trump in the general election. She also called on them to be an integral part of her governing coalition.

I don’t know how sincere Clinton is about this, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. Because this effectively functions as a challenge to Sanders and his supporters — to exert as much influence as possible over her agenda as president.

The question of how — or whether — the Sanders movement will endure, once Clinton wins the nomination, has been debated for months, and one possibility is that many Sanders supporters will see trying to influence her presidency as one constructive near-term path forward. If so, that suggests a more positive outcome than the one envisioned by some Sanders critics — namely, that by campaigning on unrealistic goals, Sanders risks disillusioning a new generation, ultimately causing them to give up on politics in disillusionment and despair.

As I’ve argued, Sanders’s candidacy can be understood as a deliberate effort to stake out overly ambitious goals, for the explicit purpose of bringing about a dramatic upward jolt in our baseline conception of a fair economy and just society. In service of moving us in that direction, Sanders has consciously sought to shift the boundaries of what we decide at the outset constitutes political realism, setting the goal at no less than a fundamental re-imagining of the American social contract. For all of his flaws — such as his overly dismissive and reductive account of the achievements of the Obama era — it’s possible that this big picture approach is engaging untold numbers of young voters in Democratic politics for the first time. They perhaps believe their futures are at serious risk, due to political stalemate, economic instability and stagnation, and the looming climate threat, and want someone to unflinchingly champion government solutions that are ambitious enough to match the scale of the problems they believe they face. Recent polling suggests that this may be the case, and also suggests that more young voters are self-identifying as Democrats — possibly due to Sanders’s presence in the race.

Meanwhile, as Nate Cohn details, the voting throughout the primaries suggests that Sanders may also be engaging blue collar white Democrats in ways that previous Democratic presidential insurgencies have not.

All this could accrue to the party’s benefit over time. But we don’t know if that will happen. We don’t know what will happen to the spirit and ideas Sanders has unleashed after he loses. And as Brian Beutler argues, this suggests a possible way forward. While Sanders “seeks nothing less than the wholesale transformation of the Democratic Party into a vessel for social-democratic politics,” a more modest outcome is possible. Sanders could try to

extend the intra-liberal debate he sparked during the primary about the ideal scope and architecture of social policy into governing season. He’ll keep pressing the question: What should a country provide its citizenry, and should it provide those things to all, or only to some, on the basis of need?

Like a Ryan of the left, Sanders will have an opportunity to cajole (and if need be, push) Democrats in a more progressive direction, but he can also serve as a bulwark against regressive policymaking, the same way conservatives have time and again stopped Republican leaders from consorting with Democrats on any measure that carries a whiff of liberalism. If and when President Clinton forges illiberal compromises with Republican leaders, Sanders will be one of the only people in Congress with a constituency wide enough to make other Democratic members consider rebelling against the leader of their party.

There are all kinds of obstacles to making this work. But Clinton — whether she meant to or not — has now basically invited Sanders and his supporters to give it a try.