PUMA BOBs?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., smiles during an interview with The Associated Press, Monday, M
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., smiles during an interview with The Associated Press, Monday, May 23, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

There's a question on the minds of many Democratic Party leaders right now, which might be phrased: Will there be PUMAs? Or, to update it a bit: Will there be BOBs? Or maybe even PUMA BOBs? Perhaps you'll hear, at the convention: "I'm Bob Puma, glad to meet you"?

Cheap acronymic humor aside, the question is an important one. PUMAs, for those who have forgotten the 2008 Democratic primary race, were the supposedly-numerous Hillary Clinton supporters who refused to back Barack Obama (due to slights perceived during the hard-fought primary, as well as ideological differences), and were instead going to defect en masse and vote for John McCain. The name stood for "Party Unity My Ass!" which was also their rallying cry. This year, they may be replaced by the "Bernie Or Bust!" crowd, or (to coin a neologism) the BOBs.

But before we got to the BOBs, a quick historical review of the PUMAs is necessary. The entire "Party Unity My Ass!" movement (if it can even be called that, in retrospect) was the result of two things which turned out to not actually be representational of how the party's base was feeling. The first was the viciousness of the online flamewar between supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Exactly eight years ago, reading the comments section on any article or blog post about the state of the Democratic race was like watching a to-the-death gladiator battle. No holds were barred, no scathing insult deemed too extreme. From both sides, I hasten to mention (lest I be called biased). The personalities of Barack and Hillary were being savaged online, on a daily basis. This might sound familiar to anyone watching the Bernie-versus-Hillary flamewars online today. But while it's hard to accurately measure such things, it certainly seemed a lot more personal and vicious back then (at least, to me -- I certainly don't read every article's comments section, though).

So you had loud voices screaming at each other online. Due to the loudness and nastiness, some in the media started a narrative that the Democratic Party was split beyond repair. The convention, they all confidently predicted, would be contentious and possibly even violent. The spectre of 1968 was trotted out. For weeks before the convention, the media fanned these flames vigorously. I reached a different conclusion, however:

But personally, I think the entire PUMA ("Party Unity My Ass") effect is going to be about as effective as the Yippies were in nominating Pigasus (an actual pig) to the 1968 Democratic ticket. Which is to say, not very. And I think the demonstrations outside [the convention] are going to be similarly ineffective.

By the time the convention got underway, the narrative had reached ridiculous proportions in the media coverage. This led me to write a little parody of their "reporting," which I prefaced with: "You have to read this with an Australian accent, of course," but which I really should have led into with: "Imagine Eric Cartman saying this in his atrocious 'Crocodile Hunter' Australian accent."

"Crikey! We're on the hunt for the elusive PUMA, here on the streets of Den-vah. The PUMA is a wily beast and has so far evaded every attempt we've had to corner her. We asked hundreds and hundreds of women delegates inside the convention hall, and absolutely none of them would rant and rave in full PUMA fashion before our cameras. By crikey, we've heard stories that say the PUMA is a mythological animal, and even though we haven't found one yet, we're still out here looking..."

The only one to ever actually find any of the elusive PUMAs seemed to be Chris Matthews, who apparently got the "scoop" interview with some ranting Hillary supporters. That was pretty much it, for actual PUMAs (versus the perceived power of the PUMAs by the media). After Clinton gave a truly rousing speech at the convention in support of Obama, I noticed that someone in the media had gotten it right (but, sadly for historical review reasons, I failed to note exactly who it was):

For the first two days, the media kept beating the "Hillary people are going to show a divided party" drum, and it never happened. What was the overwhelming image out of the convention so far? Party unity.... I had to give credit to one talking head (I forget who it was, it may have been Bob Schieffer on CBS) who, obviously speaking without a script, said immediately after Hillary's speech something along the lines of: "Well, we've all be telling the story of how divided the Democrats are, but we were wrong. They are united." I didn't write down the exact words, but to me it was a stunning admission of journalistic failure -- for almost everyone in the media. They really, really wanted a fight. They didn't get one. Too bad. One would like to hope that now their media narrative will pivot on a dime into "It's astonishing how united the Democratic Party has become," but (as always when expecting things from the media) I'm not going to hold my breath or anything.

PUMAs, for all their online ranting, failed to materialize at the convention. I point this out as a cautionary tale for the mainstream media at large, because I think they'll all be tempted to try another crack at this storyline this year. Of course, that doesn't mean that the BOBs might not become a whole lot more real than the PUMAs ever were. Which brings us back to the present.

Losing candidates in a very close race always have a certain degree of fervency among some of their followers. That much is pretty conventional. But Bernie Sanders has run anything but a conventional campaign, and his supporters are not exactly a conventional slice of the Democratic base.

Bernie, in his own words, is trying to lead a "political revolution." So far, he has succeeded in revolutionizing Democratic Party politics. Others have tried to yank the party back to where it was under F.D.R., but none have had anywhere near the success that Bernie's seen. Democrats tacked heavily towards the center in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton remade the party with a very different ideology than had been traditional for Democrats. It would become a more business-friendly and law-and-order party than it had been in the previous few decades. Hillary Clinton has been caught in a bind during the 2016 campaign, because she originally wanted to run on not just continuing (and improving on) Obama's agenda, but also doing the same for her husband's agenda. Nostalgic talk of how things were pretty darn good under President Bill were supposed to be a strong point on the campaign trail.

Bernie forced a major reconsideration of this strategy, of course. Bernie talks about "The People" in just about every sentence, and stands for fighting for Main Street concerns like income inequality and criminal justice reform. By championing such issues as fighting trade agreements and raising the minimum wage (to $15 an hour) and tuition-free public college for all, Bernie forced Hillary to, essentially, reject some of her and her husband's political legacies. By doing so, Bernie drove a lot of the primary agenda in the Democratic race. He showed leadership within the party, and millions of people reacted very favorably to the agenda Bernie laid out. Hillary famously put "17 million cracks in the glass ceiling" for women, but Bernie has likewise put millions of cracks in the old Democratic Leadership Council's version of what the Democratic Party's agenda should be.

If Bernie Sanders loses the nomination to Hillary Clinton (which is now almost a mathematical certainty), what will his supporters do? This is the big question everyone in the political media world is now about to contemplate, for roughly the next two months. There has been (much like in 2008) a contingent of Sanders supporters online who have quite vocally vowed never to support Clinton. They swear they'll either: (a) write in Bernie's name in November, (b) vote for Donald Trump, or (c) just stay home and grumble. The slogan this time around is "Bernie Or Bust!"

But how many of them will still feel that way in November? That is really the more important question than how many Bernie supporters feel that way now. Time is a great healer of wounds, and Donald Trump is not exactly John McCain.

Three things are really going to have to happen, if the BOB movement is to be defused. The first is that Hillary Clinton is going to have to be as magnanimous in victory as Barack Obama was, back in 2008. Back then, Clinton didn't even concede the race on the last primary day. It took four whole days and a private face-to-face meeting with Obama before Clinton would even concede she had lost the race to him. But Obama didn't hold it against her, and went on to be as inclusive as possible at the Democratic National Convention. Hillary got most of the convention concessions she wanted, and in the end she personally (from the floor of the convention) cast the New York state delegate votes that put Obama over the top in the official nomination roll call, in one of the most brilliantly staged bits of political theater I've ever witnessed. Obama showed Hillary the respect her 17 million votes demanded, and Hillary turned right back around and gave Obama the same level of respect. That level of civility must be the goal of both the Clinton and the Sanders camps this year.

The second thing that has to happen is Clinton is going to have to let Sanders make major changes to the official party platform document. Bernie's millions of votes demand that the party rethink its core partisan agenda. The party simply has to chart a new direction for the future, period. By doing so, it could become a lot more appealing to the hordes of young voters Bernie Sanders has so excited this time around. Even if Hillary Clinton becomes president and serves two terms, the Democratic Party as a whole needs to reach out in a big way to the youth vote, because they are indeed the party's own future. Sooner or later there will be another open presidential election on the Democratic side, and the party would do well to position itself for that eventuality by beginning to address some of the problems Bernie Sanders has been pointing out. Changing the party platform document has no real tangible consequences for the nominee (few people read the platform, and the nominee is not bound by it), but at the same time the platform has always served as an aspirational document for the future of the party. As such, who better to make changes than the man who has inspired so many young voters this time around?

The third and final thing that absolutely has to happen to make the BOBs just as irrelevant as the PUMAs has to come from Sanders himself. Bernie has to have the speech of his life ready to go on the night of June 7, when the final states hold their primaries (Washington D.C. Democrats will still not have voted, but it won't matter one way or the other). He has led his revolutionary forces farther than any other populist Democrat has managed in decades. They could almost taste the victory, but in the end they're going to be denied. I say this as a person who will be casting his vote for Bernie in California two weeks from now, I should mention. But even if he wins here -- even if he sweeps all six states that night, in fact -- Bernie Sanders is not going to be the Democratic nominee. Hillary Clinton will go over the top in the delegate count, no matter which final states Bernie picks up. So Bernie's got to begin the process of letting his own supporters down gently. A lot of them are going to be outright disgusted that Bernie could rally behind Hillary after such a hard-fought campaign. That disgust is going to become quite public, almost immediately. But Bernie still has to give a speech which clearly explains to his own base that denying Donald Trump the presidency is indeed reason enough to support the Democratic Party's nominee.

Sanders will have to make this case repeatedly, over a period of weeks. Once the initial acute disappointment of his supporters wears off a bit, maybe he'll be persuasive. If Clinton is seen as giving Bernie due deference at the convention, this will help ease the tensions between the two in a big way. My guess (on nothing but gut feeling, I'll freely admit) is that Bernie will be largely successful at convincing his supporters to back Clinton in November. All along, his campaign hasn't been personality-driven, it has been driven by the power of ideas. Fighting to get the Democratic Party to fully back those ideas is still a worthwhile fight, even if you believe that Hillary Clinton doesn't agree with a large part of Bernie's agenda. Turning the party sharply away from the old Democratic Leadership Council agenda and starting to refocus on the needs of working men and women and families is a change worth making. Bernie has spent much of the primary season attempting (and succeeding, in many cases) to change Hillary Clinton's position on some of these key issues. He can still be effective at doing so after she becomes the nominee -- or, at least, that's the case he'll have to make to his supporters.

I think this is going to be a convincing argument, in the end. There may be a Bernie Or Bust faction that has an influence both at the convention and in November, but at this point I think the BOB faction will be a lot smaller than expected (or hyped) by the media.

 

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