In 2016, Bernie Sanders waited until July — long after the Democratic nomination had been decided — to endorse Hillary Clinton. Radio host Howard Stern asked Clinton if Sanders could have backed her earlier.
“He could have,” she replied. “He hurt me. There’s no doubt about it. He hurt me.” Clinton added: “I hope he doesn’t do it again to whoever gets the nomination. Once is enough.”
Many of Clinton’s most grievous wounds were self-inflicted. No one made her use a private email server, or give high-dollar speeches to Wall Street, or ignore warnings in key Midwestern states, or call Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.” It was her campaign that was deplorable.
But her comments about Sanders are still correct. His behavior remains one of the principal reasons for her defeat. As Hillary wrote in her book “What Happened,” Sanders’ attacks “impugning my character ... caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign.”
Sanders is poised to play the role of spoiler again. His huge fundraising haul over the last three months guarantees his staying power, and he is starting to do to Joe Biden what he did to Hillary — emphasizing his rival’s personal flaws and handing the Trump campaign a stockpile of ammunition.
In a recent Washington Post interview, Bernie echoed Trump’s caustic condemnation of Biden as “Sleepy Joe” by saying, “It’s just a lot of baggage Joe takes into a campaign, which isn’t going to create energy and excitement.”
Primary opponents have every right to criticize their rivals, but what makes Sanders so dangerous to the Democrats is his insufferable self-righteousness. We’re pure, he tells his followers, and everyone else is corrupt. Like Trump, he warns that the system is “rigged” against them, so if they lose, they lose unfairly, and therefore have no obligation to support the winner.
Analysts studying the 2016 vote concluded that about 1 in 5 Sanders primary voters did not back Clinton in November. About 1 in 10 actually voted for Trump, while the rest supported third parties or stayed home. Professor Brian Schaffner of the University of Massachusetts calculates that in each of the three states that made Trump president — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — the number of Bernie backers who voted for Trump exceeded the president’s margin of victory.
Sanders is threatening to repeat that perfidious performance this year. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Biden backer, told the Post, “My big concern isn’t that he’ll beat Joe, but that this movement of his may decide to take a walk if Bernie isn’t the nominee. It’d be deadly to the Democratic Party if he didn’t do everything he could to support the nominee.”
Sanders, of course, insists that he’s not a spoiler — that by calling for a “revolution,” he can actually beat Trump by energizing marginal voters, particularly young people. But that is a delusional myth. This is NOT a revolutionary country. The last successful insurrection happened almost 250 years ago, when we liberated ourselves from a tyrannical British monarch. Since then, the core of our political culture, and its enduring stability, has been rooted in reason, not revolution, and pragmatism, not passion.
Since the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Democrats have elected six presidents; not one came from the Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party. The orthodox liberals who did win the nomination all lost badly.
In the 2016 exit polls, only 26% of voters identified as liberals; 39% called themselves moderate and 35% conservative. It is totally inconceivable that this country would elect a self-proclaimed socialist who proposes vast increases in government spending totaling more than $50 trillion. Sure, Sanders could galvanize some left-wing voters, but he would alienate far more moderates: exactly the voters Democrats will desperately need in battleground states to deny Trump a second term.
For example, Mason-Dixon Polling reports that Biden beats Trump by 2 points in Florida, while Sanders loses by 5; in Virginia, Biden has a 4-point lead over the president, while Sanders trials him by 6. Harry Sloan, a Republican fundraiser, reinforced that finding in The New York Times: “I’ve spoken to many Republicans who don’t intend to vote for Trump. They’re looking for an alternative. They are pretty polarized against Warren and Sanders and that so-called progressive wing of the party.”
Bernie Sanders cannot win the White House, but he can stop another Democrat from winning. That’s why many party pragmatists don’t feel the Bern — they fear the Bern.
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.)