In sports and in politics—the old rules apply; win with ease and lose with grace. Early on in the process, Bernie Sanders surprised Hillary Clinton with a series of improbable wins, starting in New Hampshire and moving outward. For a short period of time, it appeared that Sanders might eclipse the frontrunner that was intent upon becoming the first female president of the United States. Just like 8 years earlier, Secretary Clinton found herself in another war of attrition. However, unlike 2008, it was be highly improbable that there would be any mass exodus of Democratic super delegate support from Clinton to Sanders. Clinton’s center held and those super delegates gave her enough strength to put Sanders away in the latter stages of the campaign, where she closed the gap with reaching a majority of pledged delegates.
Worse for Sanders, the behavior of his own followers who caused a near-riot at the recent Nevada Democratic Convention, gave many left-leaning publications the excuse to move away from him or at least question his behavior. The Nation, which endorsed Sanders in early January, tore Sanders and his campaign apart after the behavior of his followers and the tone of his response. Sanders supporters published the personal information of Nevada Democratic officials, who were harassed with obnoxious comments and even death threats. Instead of taking a moment to corral his own supporters, Sanders went after process issues in Nevada.
Any real chance for the nomination slipped from Bernie Sanders fingers long ago. However, how he behaves, regardless of any misguided zeal some of his most ardent supporters have shown, will be critical if he hopes to have any of his ideas make it into the mainstream.
In 1980, then former UN Ambassador and former CIA Director George HW Bush found that he was chasing Ronald Reagan across the country. After winning the first three of four contests, including the Iowa caucus, Bush found himself on the outside looking in as Reagan won a great majority of the remaining contests. Anybody could see the writing on the wall immediately knew that George Bush was going to be headed back to Kennebunkport while Ronald Reagan would win the nomination and face Jimmy Carter in the fall. In May 1980 Jim Baker, who ran the Bush effort, effectively shut it down. By withdrawing before the California Primary, Baker set in process a chain of events that led to Reagan choosing George HW Bush as his Vice Presidential nominee. That one phone call not only set the table for Bush’s political career but also set things in motion for the creation of the Bush political dynasty.
However, it is clear that Bernie Sanders is not that kind of political figure and finesse has rarely played into his political persona. For Sanders he should be looking at the behavior of Gene McCarthy in 1968 and how his petulance tipped the general election to Richard Nixon in the fall.
Like Sanders, in 1968 Gene McCarthy started out as a one-note candidate who stood against the war in Vietnam, especially after RFK chose to remain on the sidelines. After McCarthy scored well in New Hampshire, Robert Kennedy entered into the fray, and Lyndon Johnson soon exited the race in a nationally televised address. Both RFK and McCarthy duked it out in a number of state primaries while Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, announced his own candidacy and quickly began to sew up state delegations.
As the 1968 Democratic Convention descended into chaos, McCarthy washed his hands and walked away. He refused to support the Humphrey-Muskie ticket and many of his white, well-to-do youthful supporters also sat on their thumbs as Richard Nixon built up a large initial lead. Finally in October, all McCarthy could muster was a statement that he would vote for Humphrey in November. However, he withheld his endorsement for the nominee. In the end while Humphrey made it close, he lost the popular vote by a slim 500,000 votes. In the Electoral College, had Humphrey had some help from those who “Came Clean for Gene,” in Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, and Wisconsin (three of four states won by McCarthy in the primaries), Humphrey would have won the election.
Instead Richard Nixon won the election and we got 4 more years of war in Vietnam, Kent State, 19,000 more dead soldiers, Watergate, and an impeachment process that divided the nation. A little help from McCarthy back then could have gone a long way.
In 2016 the stakes are far higher. The emergence of Donald Trump is a truly frightening political nightmare which threatens to wreck the American political experiment. Worse, the Republican Party is slowly beginning to pick up speed and rally around their new standard bearer.
All of this brings us back to Bernie Sanders because how he behaves in the run up to the convention in Philadelphia will determine his political legacy. Sanders is only a Democrat of convenience, having joined the Democratic Party in November of 2015, only weeks before the Iowa Caucus. Before that, he was a political independent from 1979 until his 2015 conversion. Before 1979, he was a member of a left-wing fringe organization called the Liberty Union Party. However, Sanders’ political mien is perhaps most comfortable within the Green Party than anything that resembles the Democratic Party.
Since its time in the wilderness during between 1968 and 1988 when Democrats only won 1 out of 5 presidential elections, our fortunes have changed. Since 1992, Democrats have won 5 of 6 presidential elections in the popular vote totals and 4 of 6 in the Electoral College.
How Sanders behaves as the convention comes nearer will be the key. Should he accept reality and gracefully exit to allow Hillary Clinton to prepare for a greater race against Donald Trump, then he will be well remembered.
However, if Sanders sits on his thumbs as McCarthy sat on his two generations ago, we may be in for a very dark time and he will have to take some responsibility for the outcome.