During a brief statement in Washington on Tuesday, Bernie Sanders outlined four proposals to reform the Democratic Party.
Those proposals are as follows, given in the order Sanders presented them.
- Get new leadership at the Democratic National Committee.
- Approve "the most progressive platform ever passed" at the Democratic National Convention in July.
- Enact "real electoral reform" within the Democratic Party.
- Get rid of superdelegates.
If you don't live in D.C., it's sort of easy to forget that Sanders offered his list on the last day of voting in the Democratic primary. As promised, the Democratic presidential candidate stuck with the race until the voting was done, which it was by 9 p.m. Tuesday. On Thursday, he will host a video chat with supporters, during which, one assumes, he'll concede the race to Hillary Clinton. While the eventual outcome of the contest has been obvious for a long time, Sanders's campaign had insisted that it would spend the next month trying to persuade superdelegates to switch to its side and thereby gain a majority of the delegates up for grabs. This was never going to happen and is not going to happen, for a variety of reasons, including that Clinton won more votes, pledged delegates and, if you care about such things, contests.
But that is why Point No. 4 above is odd. Sanders fleshed out all of these points, of course, and to explain why he wanted to ban superdelegates, he noted that about 400 had pledged to Clinton before voting even began, echoing a common argument that this somehow affected the results of the ensuing contests. There's not really any evidence that it did: Clinton's strength among members of the Democratic establishment was clearly beneficial, and superdelegates overlap with that group, but I'd challenge you to find a significant population of voters in any state who would point to the raw count of superdelegates as having swayed their decision. Did Clinton romp in the South because black voters saw her superdelegate edge? Did she get demolished in New Hampshire because of it?
At least Sanders's anti-superdelegate argument completes the circle back to where he started. His brief flirtation with using their existence to subvert the various other ways in which he lost — he argued that they might switch allegiance to him en masse and hand him the victory in the process — was galling to many people, including at least some portion of his supporters.
Let's set that aside. Let's dispatch quickly with Sanders's call to revamp the leadership of the DNC, which is equal parts a dig at the reviled (by Team Sanders) (and others) DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and a call for new energy and focus within the party. "Yeah, I know political parties need money," Sanders said, "but it is more important that we have energy. That we have young people. That we have working-class people that are going to participate in the political process." Fair enough.
Let's instead skip ahead to Sanders's "electoral reform" proposal, which included a number of sub-points.
- Same-day voter registration
- Enough staffing and training to allow people to vote in a timely fashion (pointing to the mess in Arizona)
- Make sure the votes get counted (pointing to a slow process in California)
And then there's this one, which we'll quote directly.
- "We need real electoral reform within the Democratic Party. And that means — among many, many other things — open primaries. The idea that in the state of New York, the great state of New York, 3 million people could not participate in helping to select who the Democratic or Republican candidate for president would be because they had registered as an independent not as a Democrat or a Republican is incomprehensible."
This quote lies at the heart of the differences between Sanders and the Democratic Party, everything else aside.
It is the job of the Democratic Party to gain new members who will then vote for Democratic candidates. To raise money from those members to help run campaigns on behalf of those candidates. In recent years, the number of people who identify with the party has declined; the number of people who identify with the Republican Party has declined slightly faster. In early 2005, there were more Republicans than Democrats and more Democrats than independents, according to Gallup. By January of this year, 26 percent of Americans identified as Republicans and 29 percent as Democrats. Forty-two percent called themselves independents. In other words: The party isn't getting its job done. (It's not getting the job done in state-level races, either, but that's a different discussion.)
From the standpoint of the party, though, Sanders's proposal would only make the problem worse. Allowing non-Democrats to vote in the Democratic primary might get voters invested in the candidate they support — but it wouldn't get them invested in the party. The party wants to identify people whom it can reliably turn out to vote in important contests; allowing people to vote in Democratic primaries without being Democrats doesn't help them with that identification. What's more, it doesn't build loyalty to the ticket. Democrats tend to vote for Democrats. Independents votes for ... whomever. (Although in practice they vote for the party with which they privately align themselves, outside of the pesky gaze of Wasserman Schultz.)
It's not weird to suggest that more people should get to vote in elections. It's somewhat weird to suggest that the party has a duty to let non-members help pick its nominee. It's very weird to suggest that the Democratic Party would want to intentionally weaken itself.
Of course, the reason Sanders wishes that the party allowed non-Democrats to vote is that those non-Democrats helped keep him in the fight. In a few states, it was people who identified as independents that handed Sanders a win. If those New York voters had been able to pull the lever for Sanders, he may have ... well, not lost quite so badly.
But notice what's missing from Sanders's list: caucuses.
As the primary season unfolded, a number of people pointed out that caucuses, which require a commitment of much more time within a particular period on Election Day, are rather undemocratic. Working during caucus hours? Too bad. Can't get child care during that window? Tough.
So why wouldn't Sanders suggest that caucuses be reformed? Well, a cynic might suggest it was because Sanders won caucuses overwhelmingly.
"We need major, major changes in the Democratic Party in converting it to a party of the people, welcoming working people, welcoming young people," Sanders said Tuesday, "and we need an electoral process which is worthy of the Democrats." Sure. But that caucuses Sanders won in Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Utah, North Dakota and Nebraska might not meet that standard didn't come up. In Nebraska and Washington, Clinton won the higher-turnout primaries but lost the lower-turnout caucuses — and the delegates that went with them. Unfair — but not so unfair that Sanders brought them up.
The core of Sanders's argument is the second of his four points. His victories were shifting the conversation about what the party stands for to the left. Clinton may claim that she was there all along, but it doesn't really fool anyone. Sanders managed to make the Democratic primary season about economics and about the role of money in politics in a way that it would not have been otherwise. His articulation of what needs to change, though, moves into another sphere. Eliminating superdelegates is fair game, and something many have suggested. Suggesting open primaries is, from the standpoint of the party, iffy. Ignoring the problems with caucuses sort of gives the game away.
The Democratic primary is over. Party leaders and Clinton in particular will be looking to figure out how to make Sanders and his voters happy with the outcome. For Sanders, there's no reason not to ask for the moon and the stars. For leaders in the Democratic Party, though, smoothing the runway for future insurgents probably isn't at the top of the priority list.