Politics & Policy

Sanders Pulls Punches against Clinton as Supporters Prepare for the End

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Sanders may well be moving toward a cautious détente with the Democratic establishment.

The sun had settled behind a bank of wispy clouds on the horizon by the time Bernie Sanders arrived at a Washington, D.C., campaign rally on Thursday evening. The twilit scene felt appropriate to many of his assembled supporters. Two days after the Sanders campaign’s collapse in California — and just hours after President Obama, Vice President Biden, and progressive champion Elizabeth Warren endorsed Hillary Clinton  the sun appeared to be finally setting on the Vermont senator’s underdog bid for the White House.

But even so, Sanders still wasn’t quite ready to let go.

In what came as a bitter disappointment to the reporters hoping to be on hand for the last 2016 dropout, Sanders delivered his usual stump speech to over 1,000 supporters at RFK Stadium in Washington — running through a laundry list of progressive causes ranging from student loans to climate change to big money in politics. He never once alluded to the death throes wracking his campaign, plowing through chants of “Thank you, Bernie” and “Stay in the race” without comment. And he promised to fight on through the D.C. primary next Tuesday. “It would be extraordinary if the people of Washington, our nation’s capital, stood up and told the world that they are ready to lead this country into a political revolution,” he told the crowd.

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Still, there were signs that the day’s meetings with President Obama and other leading Democrats had rattled the once-pugnacious Sanders. He never mentioned Clinton by name, referring only vaguely to “our opponents” while talking about campaign-finance reform. And he did not repeat the fiery vow he made after California’s primary on Tuesday to take his fight to the Democratic convention in July. “I look forward to meeting with [Clinton] in the near future to see how we can work together and defeat [Donald] Trump,” Sanders had said following his White House meeting with President Obama earlier in the day. The senator seems to be living up to that statement — for now, at least — and may well be moving toward a cautious détente with the Democratic establishment.

Sanders may well be moving toward a cautious détente with the Democratic establishment.

Many of his supporters are also making their peace — including Cornel West, the Princeton philosophy professor who’s served as one of Sanders’s most effective surrogates. “What’s wrong with you?!” he asked Sanders supporters who are now considering a vote for Trump over “the milquetoast neoliberal sister,” Hillary Clinton. “We know the difference between a neoliberal and a neofascist, but you make your own decision,” he said.

It was a sentiment found throughout the despondent sea of dark-blue campaign signs and “Feel the Bern” T-shirts. “This was an easy one for us, it isn’t even hard,” says Marlin Dohlman, a 57-year-old from Washington. “We’re gonna unite our support behind our nominee. Because a vote for her is a vote against Trump.”

RELATED: Can the Democrats Unify?

That’s not to say animosity toward Clinton doesn’t still simmer — some attendees openly wondered whether they’d still support the former secretary of state if a Republican other than Trump had won the nomination. “If it had been another Republican . . . I don’t know, that’s a good question,” says Autumn Strawderman, a D.C. resident. “I might — I don’t know, I just don’t know. But Trump, no effing way.”

Sanders may need to personally assuage the loathing that many of his supporters feel for Clinton.

Other attendees may already be past the point of no return. Several young people, in particular, say they cannot in good conscience support Clinton, regardless of who or what she’s running against. “I’m really hoping that if [Sanders] doesn’t get it he runs as an independent — I would write him in anyway,” says Rachael Paul, a young woman at the Washington rally.

If the Democratic party hopes to unite in time for the convention, Sanders may need to personally assuage the loathing that many of his supporters feel for Clinton. But while the senator may be pulling his punches for now, his campaign is still showing little sign of giving ground. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs tells reporters there are currently no plans to throw in the towel even after the D.C. primary on Tuesday. And he says there’s an almost 100 percent likelihood that they’ll hold a Sanders campaign rally right outside the Philadelphia convention hall in July.

#related#Briggs argues that it’s Clinton’s job to convince Sanders’s supporters to jump on board, and seems skeptical of the idea that his candidate can play a major role in knitting the Democratic party back together. “It’s not like he can just wave a magic wand and tell these supporters to go out there,” says Briggs. “It’s not the Chicago Democratic machine.”

But other Sanders backers believe their candidate must help shepherd his supporters back into the Democratic fold — and they believe that, when the time is right, he will. “I do think the young people are a little bit upset,” says Dohlman. “It’s hard, they’re thinking about the person [and not the policies]. . . . Bernie has gotta bring those kids around.”

– Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter with National Review.

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