Endorsements, Leverage And Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders recently endorsed Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in New Hampshire, telling supporters that he "intend[s] to do everything [he] can to make certain she will be the next president of the United States." The endorsement was expected and followed months of Democrats and journalists calling for him to drop out of the Democratic primary.

Some of those Democrats, like Raul Grijalva and Jeff Merkeley, had been Sanders supporters. They argued that Sanders should exit the race because doing so would make "the process of unifying to defeat Trump and elect Hillary smoother," in the words of Grijalva. Whether or not you agree that party unity should be a primary goal, this argument at least made sense: it's hard to imagine that Sanders' seal of approval wouldn't be helpful in shoring up votes for Clinton in the fall.

Democrats and journalists less sympathetic to Sanders, however, had been making a much less coherent argument: that Sanders was actually undermining his political power and the ideas he campaigned on by staying in the race. This claim was obviously incorrect but was nonetheless repeated over and over again by numerous journalists and pundits, including:

  • Gabriel Debenedetti and Sahil Kapur, who penned pieces entitled "Sanders loses convention leverage" (for Politico) and "Sanders' Long Refusal to Endorse Clinton Hurts His Leverage" (for Bloomberg), respectively, on June 17;
  • Joan Walsh, who argued in The Nation on June 27 that "Sanders may... be setting himself up for less influence in Philadelphia, rather than more;"
  • Jamelle Bouie, who contended in Slate on June 28 that "the leverage [Sanders] held at the end of the primary just isn't there anymore;"
  • Stuart Rothenberg, who wrote in The Washington Post on June 30 that "Sanders is not yet irrelevant[, but] he reached a point weeks ago when his stubbornness became counterproductive;"
  • A "senior Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity," who told Politico on July 6 (after Sanders was booed by House Democrats for saying that his goal "is to transform America," not just "to win elections") that Sanders was "squandering the movement he's built;" and
  • Joshua Green, who asserted in Bloomberg on July 7 that "Sanders increasingly looks like an afterthought who's squandering an historic opportunity."

Their arguments boiled down to the following: The more Sanders waited to endorse Clinton, the more he alienated her team, encouraging them to ignore parts of his platform that they'd be otherwise inclined to support and to rely on other politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, for progressive credibility. Sanders' "first and most prominent supporters [had already] jumped off the bandwagon, congratulating and in some cases endorsing Clinton," Debenedetti noted, and Bouie later added that Sanders had lost his chance to "claim credit" for the "natural movement to Clinton among Democratic primary voters" that had already begun to take place. Bouie believed Sanders could have taken "a starring role in the campaign against Trump," opening "the doors to lasting influence," but in the words of Rothenberg, "Clinton [did]n't need Sanders anymore." If "Sanders delivers a late or halfhearted endorsement," Walsh had argued, Clinton might even turn to Republicans for votes.

These clams were proved false by Sanders' consistent string of negotiation wins. As Jeff Stein observed in Vox, the original draft Democratic party platform, released on Friday, July 1, "show[ed] Sanders winning on at least six signature issues that reflect long-held goals of his movement... on top of victories Sanders [had] already won over the platform." Bouie was right to point out that "Team Sanders... lost out" in early platform discussions about "more contentious" issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and environmental regulation, and Green wasn't far off when he said the platform is "a purely symbolic document," but it was also undoubtedly the case, as Stein observed, that the party was "moving [Sanders'] way on several key issues." Clinton's new plan to make college free for families making under $125,000 a year (a proposal that isn't quite as good as Sanders' but represents a striking reversal from her earlier campaign rhetoric) and Sanders' additional platform wins on issues ranging from the environment to marijuana policy to the minimum wage in Orlando on July 8 and 9 only underscored Stein's point: Sanders' "hard-line negotiating tactic [was] rewarded." To his credit, Bouie has now admitted that his original argument was wrong.

The reason these concessions happened is simple: Clinton wanted Sanders' endorsement. Yes, some Sanders supporters had already committed to voting for Clinton, but even they often have negative perceptions of her and are unlikely to volunteer and/or donate in the same way they would have if Sanders was the nominee. Clinton knew that generating the enthusiasm and votes necessary to beat Donald Trump in November would be easier with Sanders on board and the possibility that he wouldn't be was the best bargaining chip Sanders had.

In fact, if winning concessions from Clinton and applying pressure to the Democratic party were Sanders' only objectives, his endorsement would be a huge mistake. It's hard to believe that Sanders would have secured the gains he did if he had followed the pundits' advice and tried to ingratiate himself to Clinton sooner, and the aftermath of his endorsement -- in which it's becoming clear that he will abandon some of the policy fights he had planned for the Democratic convention -- is already showing that his open support of Clinton has compromised his ability to exact further concessions.

At the same time, Sanders' endorsement is consistent with what he has said all along: applying pressure to Clinton and changing the Democratic party is not his only or even his primary goal. Sanders has explicitly prioritized making "certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly," as Bouie has pointed out, and a brief glance at Sanders' past statements makes clear that his decision "to do everything [he] can to make certain [Clinton] will be the next president of the United States" is almost certainly motivated more by opposition to Trump than support of Clinton.

Sanders' position is not unreasonable; though the differences between Trump and Clinton are often overstated, Clinton is undoubtedly the lesser evil facing those who believe in power-balancing policy. But it also deprives Sanders of a whole lot of bargaining power, and voters who want to salvage some of that power would do well to continue to withhold their support.

In fact, Clinton can court a growing list of Republicans not because of the delayed endorsement by Sanders that Walsh feared, but for precisely the opposite reason: as one Republican strategist has explained, many Sanders supporters "have already shown, by and large, that they'll fall in line and back" Clinton despite policy positions they dislike. The loss of bargaining power that pledging to vote for Clinton entails is also apparent in pressure from Wall Street about Clinton's choice of a running mate: "moderate Democrats in the financial services industry argue that Sanders voters will come on board anyway and that Clinton does not need to pick [Elizabeth] Warren to help her win." A commitment to lesser-of-evilsism is indisputably accompanied by a loss of leverage in situations in which you and the candidate you're backing disagree.

Some Sanders supporters, like the candidate himself, have already decided that a united front against Trump is more important than that leverage. Others believe that fixing a Democratic party that is seriously broken is a more pressing concern and that the concessions Sanders has won, while not meaningless, are very different than binding commitments Clinton would be likely to adhere to if elected; we wish Sanders had maximized his leverage by seriously entertaining a third-party run. Sanders, on the other hand, has been attempting to balance his attention to both goals, to influence the Democratic party platform as much as possible without materially affecting the Democrats' chances in the fall.

It's perfectly fine to disagree with Sanders' relative weighting of priorities -- I do, and I encourage Sanders supporters to consider voting for Jill Stein come November. But whether you decide to do that or not, let's be honest about the tradeoffs involved. A mostly unconditional commitment to party unity comes at the expense of leverage over the party's direction, and there's no denying that.

Note: A version of this article first appeared on 34justice.