Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, who won a Vermont Senate seat running as a Socialist, is now trying to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. He has far exceeded initial expectations, continues to draw large crowds, and has a message about income inequality in this country that is clearly resonating with many voters.

Yet, he trails Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination in every category including, most significantly, number of pledged delegates. As the process winds towards its conclusion and the Convention in Philadelphia in late July, Sanders has increasingly made complaints about the Party’s nominating rules a staple of his campaign rhetoric.

Does Sanders have a legitimate case or is he just turning into a sore loser?
It’s worth starting with the fact that, until this campaign, Sanders was not a member of the Democratic Party. While he does caucus with the Party in the Senate, he has not been a participant in any of the others ways in which Democrats engage in the work of their party organization.

That reality really does undercut Sanders’ standing to complain. When he decided to run for president, he did so knowing that there was an existing set of rules. No one forced him to run as a Democrat.  Moreover, you didn’t hear those complaints early in the process. They have arisen only as it has become evident that Sanders has only a very slight chance to prevail against Clinton.

Sanders has generally railed against a system that he describes as rigged. His observations about income inequality and about the perverse impact of money on the political system ring true for a lot of Americans, including many who support Clinton. In fact, those are themes that Sanders has been espousing for all his time as an elected official, but now he has a national audience for his message. The salience of his positions helps explain his outsized popularity among younger voters.

However, when he applies his “rigged system” complaint to the Democratic nominating process, he is on much weaker ground. He has focused his ire on two aspects of that process, the inclusion of so-called Super Delegates as automatic participants at the Convention and the closed primary rule that exists in many states.

Both arguments have been made without regard to the history that led to those two rules and to the context in which they exist. Sanders doesn’t like the impact on his candidacy but he has not been able to make a cogent case for why those two provisions are fundamentally unfair.

Primaries became the principal way in which candidates competed for delegates after the 1968 Election in which Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without running in a single primary. His selection at the Chicago convention that year was engineered by the power of the Party’s political bosses. That fact plus his loss to Richard Nixon in the General Election led Democrats to begin a complex process to reform how their nominee would be picked.

Over time, two party commissions, one chaired by South Dakota Senator George McGovern and the other by Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, rewrote the rules. In addition to emphasizing the role of primaries in selecting delegates, Democrats gave more weight to gender and racial diversity in the composition of those who attended their convention.

The immediate result of this dramatic opening up of the process was the disastrous defeat of George McGovern in the 1972 election. McGovern, the choice of a very liberal convention, was too far out of the country’s political mainstream. It became clear that while political bosses completely dominating the process created a distorted outcome, their total absence had a different kind of negative result. Eventually, the effort to find a more balanced process led to the creation of Super Delegates, elected officials and others who have a stake in the political viability of the party’s candidate.

Is the current balance the correct one? That’s a reasonable point to debate, but not in the middle of a nominating process. Sanders knew, or should have known, what he was getting into and made plans accordingly.

Parties changes their rules all the time, usually in response to whatever happened in the prior election. Republicans, for example, front loaded their primary schedule after 2012 when it took a long time for Mitt Romney to wrap up the nomination. In a great illustration of the rule of unanticipated consequences, that accelerated schedule helped Donald Trump to run up a series of victories before he came under close scrutiny by either the press or his opponents.

In states that allow open primaries, where registered voters can choose which party primary to participate in, there is a real possibility that the outcome will be determined by individuals who are not members of the party. Crossover and independent voters have multiple objectives that often ignore what is best for the party in whose primary they are participating.

Primaries are not previews of the General Election. They are mechanisms for selecting delegates. If we are going to continue to have political parties as the main structures for organizing our elections, there is a much stronger case to be made for closed rather than open primaries.

And, as with Sanders’ other objections, the primary system was in place before he announced his candidacy. Unless you are incredibly naive, you realize that rules matter in politics and that you don’t get to change them when things are unlikely to go your way.

To some supporters, Sanders refusal to compromise and, indeed, his anger are appealing traits. In recent days and weeks, those characteristics have increasingly dominated his campaign. Neither portends success in governing, but that’s a different matter. While I fully agree that Sanders has every right to continue to campaign aggressively for the nomination, it’s beginning to look like he doesn’t care whether his efforts damage the ability of the party whose nomination he is seeking to win in November against Donald Trump.

That approach again reminds us that Bernie Sanders is not really a Democrat. For some voters, that’s part of his attraction. For others, it’s a clear demonstration that it’s time to close out the process and enable Hillary Clinton to devote her full attention and resources to preventing a Trump presidency with all its implications.