In late May of 2008, there was a bit of a misunderstanding that briefly blew the tent off the circus that was the Democratic primary. The context was an interview where Hillary Clinton responded to criticism from unnamed Obama advisers (hi, guys) who accused her of dragging on a contest that had become virtually unwinnable: “My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? And we all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”
Now, it’s clear with the benefit of eight years’ hindsight that Hillary was merely pointing out that plenty of other primaries had lasted until June. I find it hard to believe that “Hillary cites RFK assassination in explaining why she’s still in race” was the headline that the Clinton brain trust was hoping for that day. I don’t think it was on the message calendar.
Try telling that to 2008 Me. I was outraged. My colleagues were outraged. In fact, we reveled in our outrage, which is what both campaigns did best back then (for laughs, we still send around timeless YouTube classics such as “Your Slumlord Rezko,” “Change You Can Xerox,” “Talking Like She’s Annie Oakley,” and my favorite, “He Just Said Cocaine!”)
At that moment, however, a cooler head (Barack Obama’s) prevailed. Our statement referred to Clinton’s comments as “unfortunate,” she apologized, and we all moved on. Why? Because both campaigns understood that it was time to stop ripping each other apart and turn to the greater, shared goal of denying Republicans a third term in the White House.
Eight years later, we’re approaching the endgame of another Democratic primary. For Bernie Sanders to overtake Hillary Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates—which, at 239, is more than double Obama’s 112-delegate lead in 2008—he would have to win each of the remaining contests by about 18 points, a margin he has only reached in Vermont and New Hampshire. If he doesn’t, his only other option is to convince a few hundred superdelegates to back the candidate who has won fewer votes and fewer delegates.
Bernie faces long odds, but no good reason to drop out. And why should he? Why not keep running through the final primaries in June, just like Hillary did in 2008? Along the way, Sanders will probably win a few more states—especially in May—and continue to build a following that should hearten everyone who wants to see a bigger, bolder progressive movement.
But it’s also in the interest of the progressive moment for both candidates and their campaigns to begin healing the rifts that have deepened over the course of the primary. Neither Sanders nor Clinton seemed very compelling when they were screaming at each other for two hours at the debate in Brooklyn. And no one benefits from another three months of ridiculous lawsuits, overwrought fundraising emails, and surrogates sniping at each other on cable. Already, this friendly fire has taken a toll—in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, Bernie is viewed unfavorably by 20 percent of Clinton supporters, and Hillary is viewed unfavorably by 40 percent of Sanders supporters.
I don’t want to exaggerate the challenge. I still think this primary is less nasty and divisive than 2008, and exponentially less so than the cannibalism we may see in Cleveland. It’s also true that the percentage of Sanders and Clinton voters who say they won’t vote for the other candidate is fairly low. But a year in which Donald Trump or Ted Cruz could become president of the United States is not a year we can afford to have any pissed-off primary voters stay home in November.
I’ve been on a campaign that was in a position similar to Hillary Clinton’s, and I’ve been on a campaign that had to reconcile with Hillary Clinton. So, for what it’s worth (and I realize the answer may be a resounding “not much, go to hell”), here’s my advice to both sides:
The Clinton Campaign
You’re on the verge of winning. Do so gracefully. The burden of bringing the party together falls more heavily on its future leader. Hillary’s line in her New York primary night speech, “I believe that there is much more that unites us than divides us,” was a good start. I’d go further, though.
It’s not enough to just thank Sen. Sanders and his supporters. Show that you hear them; that you’ve learned from them; that they’ve made you a better candidate, and will make you a better president. Recognize what Bernie has achieved by speaking passionately about issues of economic inequality, and the gross amount of political money that gives a louder voice to richer people. Celebrate the fact that he’s inspired so many people to pay attention to politics for the first time—especially young people, who you should work even harder to reach. Consider offering Sanders a prime-time speaking slot at the convention, and choosing an unapologetic progressive as vice president.
Finally, don’t attack. And if Sanders surrogates or supporters attack, turn the other cheek. Be the bigger campaign. Don’t allow yourselves to get baited. Don’t drop snarky background quotes with reporters. Don’t allow every perceived slight and controversy to get to you (like I did in 2008). Don’t engage with the Bernie Bros (like I did last weekend). Persuade the persuadables, turn your fire on the Republicans, and focus on Hillary’s vision for the future. You’re almost there.
The Sanders Campaign
I know, I know—I’m supporting Hillary Clinton. But there was also a time when I couldn’t imagine myself liking or voting for her. Maybe you don’t believe that she’s different from the caricature we’ve all helped perpetuate. But she is running a campaign with a policy platform that’s more progressive than her husband’s administration, her 2008 campaign, and—in a few cases—Barack Obama’s administration.
Guess what? Bernie Sanders helped make that happen. He helped push Hillary Clinton to the left. And he should keep pushing her if she becomes president.
I don’t think Bernie should stop pointing out where he and Hillary disagree, or pull back on his criticism of the way money influences politics, but I do think he should start repeating a line that he’s already said once before: “On her worst day, Hillary Clinton is a hundred times better than any of the Republicans.”
It’s important for Bernie’s supporters to know that he believes this undeniable truth. It’s important for them to hear Sanders say that while he’ll keep fighting for a more progressive Democratic Party, the Democratic Party has been a vehicle for tremendous progress in this country—especially over the last eight years. Denying or minimizing the achievements of the Obama presidency only deepens the cynicism of those who worry that change isn’t possible.
Primaries are often a clash of personalities and magnified policy differences. A general election is much different. The Democratic nominee will face a Republican who is more extreme, more dangerous, and more unpopular than any presidential candidate in history. A campaign against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz won’t just be a mission to save our country from something terrible, it will be an opportunity to elect a progressive majority and a progressive president who could tip the balance of the Supreme Court for a generation.
So keep your passion, your energy, and even your outrage. Just focus it on November.