Politics & Policy

Democratic Unity Falters as Sanders Vows to Soldier On

Clinton speaks to supporters Tuesday evening. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
On the morning after California, the Democrats are far from unified.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are different in many ways, but perhaps never more so than in their approach to punctuality. While Clinton is habitually hours late, Sanders almost always sticks closely to his campaign schedule.

So it was a surprise to see Sanders show up 40 minutes late to his speech at Tuesday night’s election rally in Santa Monica, Calif. He was reportedly caught up in watching election returns back in his Los Angeles hotel room; the uncharacteristic delay seemed to reveal a man grappling with a momentous decision. Should he stay, or should he go?

The returns weren’t looking good for Sanders. He was behind in New Mexico and South Dakota, and after staking the last chance of his waning presidential bid on a full-court California press — and with a little over a third of the votes counted — he was behind in the state by double digits. He was also surely aware of the story published by Politico just hours after the polls closed, in which several top Sanders aides bitterly complained about their boss’s obsessive anger against the party elite. And he certainly noticed his opponent’s triumphal speech delivered several hours earlier on the other side of the country, where she declared the Democratic race over after her blowout win in New Jersey.

Sanders started off his election-night speech on a pensive note, and for a moment it looked as if the curmudgeonly socialist had finally figured out that his adopted party was moving on without him. “I am enormously optimistic about the future of our country when so many young people have come on board,” he said. “Our vision will be the future of America.”

Then, he dropped the hammer. “We are going to fight hard to win the primary in Washington, D.C., and then we take our fight for social, economic, and environmental justice to Philadelphia!” Sanders suddenly crowed, igniting a defiant crowd. “I am pretty good in arithmetic, and I know the fight in front of us is a pretty steep fight, but we will continue to fight for every vote and every delegate.”

“Thank you, and the struggle continues!” Sanders concluded, raising a fist in rebellion against the Democratic establishment and setting off a thunderous tidal wave of waving blue Bernie signs.

It’s a body blow to Democratic-party unity, which remains an elusive goal more than a month after Donald Trump sewed up the Republican nomination. Especially after last month’s contentious state Democratic convention in Nevada, where Sanders supporters slung death threats at pro-Clinton attendees and at times came close to violence, Democratic leaders — including some Sanders backers — had expressed hope that Sanders would start backing off after California’s vote. 

But even though he now looks on track to lose that vote, he’s promised to soldier on regardless. With his supporters still seething over what they see as a “rigged” primary and with Sanders doing nothing to talk them off the ledge, it’s easy to see why Democrats fear a repeat of Nevada, on a national scale, this July. 

The presumptive Democratic nominee had no problem making her opponent’s concession speech for him.

The Clinton campaign, blissfully unaware of their opponent’s plan, greeted Tuesday night’s conquests with the pomp and pageantry befitting a newly coronated nominee. Supporters crammed into a warehouse in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard were treated to a video linking Clinton’s campaign to the struggle of early suffragettes before Clinton herself took the stage. She basked in the adulation, seeming to choke up as she raised her arms high in triumph. “Tonight caps an amazing journey — a long, long journey,” she said, beaming.

Though Sanders had yet to make a statement at the time of Clinton’s speech — polls in California had yet to even close — the presumptive Democratic nominee had no problem making her opponent’s concession speech for him. “I would like to congratulate Senator Sanders on the extraordinary campaign he has run,” she said, adding that the “vigorous debate” between her and Sanders “has been very good for the Democratic party and America.”

Mindful of Sanders’s simmering supporters as well as the Vermont senator’s own threats to take the contest to the convention, Clinton extended an olive branch. “I know it never feels good to put your heart into a candidate, in a cause that you believe in and come up short. I know that feeling well,” she said. “But as we look ahead to the battle that awaits, let’s remember all that unites us.”

#share#Tuesday night’s primaries came one day after an Associated Press survey of Democratic superdelegates determined that Clinton had already clinched her party’s nomination, with several privately affirming that they’d vote for Clinton at July’s convention. That was enough for most media outlets to put Clinton over the 2,383-delegate threshold, but not enough to convince Sanders to throw in the towel. In fact, the Vermont senator was upset that the AP crowned Clinton the night before the California primary, where his campaign had staked all its dwindling hopes. “It is unfortunate that the media, in a rush to judgment, are ignoring the Democratic National Committee’s clear statement that it is wrong to count the votes of superdelegates before they actually vote at the convention this summer,” Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said on Monday night.

But Clinton would become the presumptive nominee on Tuesday regardless of the AP’s count. New Jersey was already expected to push her over the delegate threshold, and voters in the state certainly delivered. Clinton blew out Sanders by over 25 points in the Garden State, carrying her to an outright pledged-delegate majority and neutralizing the Sanders campaign’s outlandish hopes for a last-minute surge. 

The results of the other states in play were in some ways worse for Sanders. The Vermont senator’s successes over the last four months were largely a result of his popularity in western states and his campaign’s prowess in caucus contests. But while Sanders won North Dakota’s caucus — eking out only eight more delegates than Clinton in the process — other portions of his western firewall crumbled. He lost New Mexico and South Dakota, and won Montana by a few percentage points. To have any hope of convincing Clinton superdelegates to jump ship, he’d needed to win them all by convincing margins.

California proved to be the real gut blow for the Sanders campaign.

California proved to be the real gut blow for the Sanders campaign. The senator had long put the state on a pedestal, pointing to his prospects in the populous late-stage primary every time he had a bad primary night, and especially as Clinton’s delegate lead grew mathematically insurmountable. His campaign threw millions into advertising and criss-crossed the state for weeks — as of Tuesday night, the 74-year-old had spent 17 days straight campaigning in California. Voters noticed, with Clinton’s lead tightening from double digits to a measly two-point gap. That set off a scramble in the Clinton camp, with the candidate and her husband canceling events in New Jersey and packing the weekend before the primary with dozens of California events. 

If there was ever a real threat posed by the Sanders campaign in California, Clinton’s last-minute surge seemed to stave it off — she held a nearly 20-point lead with nearly half the vote tallied on Wednesday morning. Even Sanders seemed to concede the state, telling supporters only that he “suspect[ed] the gap will significantly diminish.”

For several weeks, it’s been difficult to see how the Sanders campaign wins the nomination, and after Tuesday night the path seems almost impossible. Sanders told NBC on Tuesday that the focus will now swing toward convincing superdelegates that he’s the best candidate to go up against Trump. But the New York Times reports that the senator plans to lay off at least half of his campaign staff on Wednesday — hardly the kind of action likely to soothe superdelegates on the fence or already in Clinton’s camp.

#related#Sanders is nevertheless moving forward, with a campaign rally and a meeting with President Obama in D.C. on Thursday. The president looks set to endorse Clinton within the next week, and Thursday may be the last courtesy call before he and other Democrats really start leaning on Sanders to bow out.

But President Obama seems unlikely to budge Sanders, particularly not after his defiant post-California performance. And without Sanders’s blessing, Clinton seems unlikely to budge Bernie’s incensed supporters. Democrats are further away from party unity at the end of the primary contest than they were at the beginning. And despite Clinton’s triumph on Tuesday, Sanders may be the only one who can truly bring the party together. 

The real question now is: Does he even want to?

– Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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