Behind Hillary Clinton's Big California Win and the Promise/Peril of the Bernie Sanders Movement

Poor Bernie Sanders. He made his big post-primary return to Washington Thursday, meeting with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Senate Democratic Leader Reid, ending the day with a rally at RFK Stadium. But to look at the media coverage, it's as though all that barely happened, as the Vermont senator was simply superseded by a rush of big endorsements to Hillary Clinton. I suppose that's what happens when a candidate who vowed to turn the race around with a big win in California instead went down to a 56-43 landslide defeat in the Golden State.

Bernie Sanders, not all that fairly, has something of a reputation as a national scold. Which made his jaunt to the Santa Monica Pier the Sunday afternoon before the California primary he had declared the cornerstone event in his hoped-for reframing of the presidential race a particular delight. With their grandkids delighting in all the amusement park rides, the senator and his deeply politically engaged wife Jane soaked in the Tony Stark-level ocean and coastal vistas as they hit all the funky pier venues.

As a Sanders primary supporter, it was heartening to see Sanders enjoy a nice break from weeks of delivering big rally speeches up and down California as he sought to change the dynamic of a titanic Democratic nomination battle moving inexorably in the direction of the longtime establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton, who had already won 3 million more popular votes.

But no true advocate, and Sanders is undeniably that, can long resist the siren call of "the speech" -- not incidentally the title of Sanders's 2011 book decrying corporate greed -- and so the man who has succeeded in mainstreaming democratic socialism delivered a very truncated version of his standard rap, urging only slightly bemused stationary bike riders in the charity "Pedal on the Pier" fundraiser to join his crusade for an economy that benefits "more than the one percent."

One finally runs out of continent not long before reaching the end of the Santa Monica Pier, a place which, with its matchless Pacific vistas, at once suggests the limitless possibility of the future and the end of the runway. And it had become apparent that, for Bernie Sanders, the seemingly endless complexity of mounting an incredibly effective insurgent presidential campaign had at last boiled down to two imperatives: Win big in California. And wait for an intervening event, i.e., a Clinton disaster, which would almost certainly have to be an indictment in the former secretary of state's e-mail scandal.

Unfortunately for the courageous Vermont senator, there were already signs that the needed big win would not happen; indeed, that defeat could well be in the offing. As for the e-mail controversy, well, it was largely bogus. To believe in an indictment required a uniquely civilian point of view with regard to security clearances.

Exit polling of the dominant numbers of those who now vote by mail conducted by data guru Paul Mitchell had indicated that the California surge in registration of young voters and independents was not resulting in a surge by those voters in actually voting. Indeed, exit polling among those who vote by mail yielded a big lead for Hillary.

In order to overcome Hillary's big edge among California's regular voters, Sanders would have to drive a massive turnout of young voters greater than anything he had previously pulled off. And he would have to do it in the face of some major developments, such as the endorsement of Hillary by historically anti-Clinton Governor Jerry Brown (largely on grounds that the general election against a very threatening Donald Trump is already underway), the arrival of both Clintons for a very extensive and intensive series of appearances around the state, and Hillary's own very powerful San Diego speech excoriating the very notion of a Trump presidency. The latter is something we may look back upon as a landmark in this campaign, not just in helping trigger Hillary's big win in the California primary but also in potentially turning the tide against the surge of Trumpism.

As for a Hillary indictment, well, the controversy is mostly non-serious, something ginned up by the House Get-Hillary, er, Benghazi Committee. Sure, it's highly ironic that Hillary, seeking to avoid endless gotcha games over her e-mail traffic, did something which resulted in precisely that, but so what?

Yes, there were a couple thousand classified e-mails. But they were all classified after the fact. And 96 percent of them were classified "Confidential."

Most people with strictly civilian backgrounds, like Jane and Bernie Sanders, don't necessarily understand how meaningless that is. For example, I was 17 years old when I got Confidential security clearance. All I had done was take the Navy oath of office. The "confidential" material in question is about as sensitive as the back pages of the New York Times, sometimes even less. Most of the rest of the e-mails in question were classified "Secret." I got Secret clearance when I was 18 years old.

Just one percent of the "classified" e-mail in question was judged, after the fact, to be "Top Secret." I had to be a recent college grad to make Top Secret clearance. But my observation all along has been that classification is overused, with different agencies frequently taking divergent views of the same material. If anything, a secrecy mania has accelerated since 9/11.

What Clinton did, which was also not unlike past practices by predecessors, is an embarrassment, but it's not a scandal.

As I noted at the end of May, I didn't believe the polls showing a Clinton-Sanders dead heat in California. I also didn't believe a few polls showing a big Clinton lead.

Around the time of Jerry Brown's Clinton endorsement, my feeling was that Sanders was six or seven points behind and the Clintons were certainly capable of holding on. So why did Hillary win by twice that margin?

I think that most people came to the conclusion that, as Jerry Brown suggested, the general election between Clinton and Trump was already underway. Hillary's dramatic speech so effectively ripping Trump did much to drive that perception. And the Associated Press announcement that -- with Hillary's weekend wins in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and the movement of some super delegates -- the former first lady had commitments from enough delegates to clinch the nomination provided, to mix a metaphor, the cherry on top.

In that regard, the Sanders election night party, also in Santa Monica, provided an apt summation of the promise and peril of the Sanders movement. The senator spoke very late on Tuesday night, hours after Hillary delivered a poised and polished speech at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard declaring victory not only for most of the Tuesday contests but for the nomination itself.

More than 3000 devoted Sanders backers were on hand at the Santa Monica Airport to cheer on their champion when he finally spoke. They roared when he vowed to keep fighting for their agenda going forward, but booed when he made a gracious reference to a conversation earlier in the evening with Hillary Clinton.

Before that, the crowd had reacted with anger and incredulity to TV news reports of Hillary's big California lead, crying "Bullshit!" and demanding that the video feed be cut off, which it was.

Thus creating a Denialistan, something all too familiar from how many folks use social media to block out information they simply don't want to hear.

After primary night, I heard from several devoted Sanders followers who, after making the rounds of social media, wondered if various nefarious theories might account for the big reversal of their hopes in California.

Were California voters biased against a Jewish candidate, one wondered? Not so much. Both California's senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, are Jewish. Which the fellow who asked me about the theory hadn't known. Were votes that would have given Sanders a California victory thrown out by election officials? Not really, since Clinton won by such a large margin and California is not some corrupt back of beyond backwater. And so on.

The idea that most voters would choose to vote for Hillary Clinton seemed anathema to too many folks who should know better.

While the Democratic establishment was clearly for Clinton, any expected favors here and there are simply marginal when one considers that the former secretary of state has a whopping 3.7 million lead in the popular vote, with nearly 57 percent of the votes cast. Of the ten biggest states in the country, she won nine, with Sanders prevailing narrowly only in Michigan. That's Clinton's victory right there, more than accounting for the great bulk of her 375 delegate vote edge among delegates won in the primary and caucus contests, a lead far bigger than that held by Barack Obama when she conceded their hard-fought contest eight years ago.

I know Bernie Sanders know this. He's a very smart guy who lives in the real world. Unfortunately, he is going to have to help some of his supporters to a more grounded understanding.

Sanders and the impressive movement he has built can have a big impact on the Democratic Party and on the next presidency. But not if the next presidency is that of Donald Trump.

Trump should lose, and lose big. But, even though he is being at last slammed in the media, he can still win. A few things go wrong that can go wrong and the mouth that roared can climb back in the driver's seat.

Bernie Sanders, like his wife, is an American patriot and citizen of the world. He rightly says that a Trump presidency is simply unacceptable for this country, that it would destroy much of what has been achieved and foment chaos around the world. Now, with his campaign about to wind down, he needs to figure out how to get all his people on board in one of the most consequential elections in our history.

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