In the annals of ’16 silliness, this one ranks high: According to a national poll this month, a whopping 33 percent of Bernie Sanders fans say they’ll sit out the election if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination.
This self-destructive sentiment was echoed the other night by actress Susan Sarandon, who told MSNBC, “I think a lot of people are, ‘Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to [vote for Clinton].” Sarandon, a Bernie fan, seems not to remember her own infamous history as a diehard fan of Ralph Nader in 2000. She and other liberal purists refused to vote for Al Gore, and that brilliant behavior gifted the White House to George W. Bush.
Barring a mind-blowing miracle in the late-stage primaries (which ain’t gonna happen), Clinton will be on the November ballot, as the last best hope to prevent Republican dominance of Washington. Sanders’ weekend wins, in three largely white caucus states, barely dented Clinton’s huge delegate lead; to clinch the nomination, she needs to win only 34 percent of the remaining delegates. She has won more states than he has (20-15). She has tallied two million more votes than he has. And she’s poised to do well in the big racially diverse states — including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York — that are still on the calendar.
I get that Bernie’s fans are emotionally invested and stubbornly starry-eyed. Right now they’re still fantasizing about nomination scenarios (the superdelegates, whom they only recently disdained, will suddenly ditch Clinton and embrace Bernie!), and they’re busy dissing Clinton as an establishment liar-toady (and way worse, if you read the misogynist slime on social media). But sooner or later they’ll need to get real — because, for Democrats, there’s nothing more crucial than preventing the ascent of Der Leader, or Ted Cruz, or some Hail Mary substitute.
Jan Wenner, the Rolling Stone magazine publisher, says it best in the latest issue. Bernie’s call for a revolution “is a vague, deeply disingenuous idea that ignores the reality of modern America. With the narrow power base and limited political alliances that Sanders has built in his years as a democratic socialist senator from Vermont, how does he possibly have a chance of fighting entrenched power? I have been to the revolution before. It ain’t happening.”
One advantage of aging is that you gain some perspective — and Wenner, as the leader of Rolling Stone back in 1972, pushed hard for Bernie-style nominee George McGovern. Wenner and his fellow liberal purists got the candidate they wanted. McGovern proceeded to lose 49 states. Wenner learned a valuable lesson: “America chooses its presidents from the middle, not from the ideological wings. We are faced with that decision again …. This is not the time in history for a ‘protest vote'” — or a Bernie-fan boycott in November.
(He could easily have cited the lesson of 1968 as well. That year, the most fervent Bernie-type fans — upscale white kids — were devoted to Eugene McCarthy, the insurgent anti-Vietnam war candidate. But the nomination went to Hubert Humphrey, who was Lyndon B. Johnson’s veep. That November, McCarthy fans and other liberals stayed home in droves because they viewed Humphrey as insufficiently antiwar; as a result, Richard Nixon won narrowly and gave us a criminal regime.)
But Wenner is ultimately optimistic. He believes that the current intramural passions will cool, that most Bernie fans will recognize the stakes come November, that “Clinton will certainly bring them along.”
And I tend to agree — because I well remember what happened in the fall of 2008.
The current rallying cry “Bernie or Bust” reminds me of the PUMAs. If that acronym doesn’t ring a bell, you’re forgiven; 2008 was eons ago. But at the Democratic Convention that year, PUMAs were all the rage. Those were the Clinton fans, predominantly women, who were still steamed about Barack Obama’s nomination triumph. According to a poll conducted that summer, 54 percent of Clintonites declared that they wouldn’t support Obama in November; instead, they vowed to either stay home or vote for John McCain. PUMA was short for “party unity my ass.”
But by November, their anger had long evaporated. They joined the electoral coalition that gave Obama more popular votes than any candidate in history.
At this point in the ’16 calendar, seven months away from election day, it seems far-fetched to suggest that the Bernie or Busters will replicate the PUMAs. But that’s just because they’re still living in the heat of the moment; as political analyst Alan Abramowitz of Emory University rightly says, “The differences between Sanders and Clinton on policy just aren’t very great, and they get blown out of proportion in a primary contest.”
In all likelihood, Sanders will keep himself in play as long as he can; he owes it to his followers and small donors, and he sensitizes Clinton to the issues on her left flank. Then he scores a prime-time speaking slot at the national convention in Philadelphia, re-articulates his left-leaning populism, and reiterates — for the benefit of the Bernie or Busters — what he has already stated in the debates: “On our worst days … we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate.”
And since they love him so much, they’ll likely heed his call — unless they’re anxious to repeat the screwups of ’68 and ’72 and ’00. As the essayist George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Meanwhile, just to give you a flavor of the Sanders campaign’s desperate spin: Yesterday, strategist Tad Devine said that Clinton is way ahead in delegates only because Team Sanders decided not to compete with her in eight big states, like Florida, that she won overwhelmingly.
Huh? That’s like a second-tier baseball team saying, “We’re actually tied for first place with the world champion Kansas City Royals, if you don’t count the fact that we forfeited eight games against them.”