What Sanders Is and Is Not Accomplishing

The big and brawling debate Thursday night in Brooklyn revealed that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders are pretty well sick of one another. And that they are each actually pretty darn good at what they do.

It's the pragmatist supreme vs. the idealist supreme. By the way, the pragmatist, trying to change the subject from the question of her still unreleased Goldman Sachs speech transcripts, erred in pressing Sanders to deliver on his tax returns. Thanks almost entirely to his U.S. Senate salary, the socialist Vermont senator made over $200,000, which is a lot money to the vast majority of Americans. It's also less than Hillary's standard speaking fee of $225,000. I sense a talking point in the making.

While he is definitely up against it in New York and may be up against it in other big states to come, Sanders has mounted a historically impressive Democratic presidential campaign. Its accomplishments are both more and less than meets the eye.

Senator Bernie Sanders addresses a Vatican conference on global economic inequality on April 15th during a quick visit to Rome. Sanders later had a brief private meeting with Pope Francis. Incidentally, the man seated to the left of the Democratic presidential candidate is Bolivian President Evo Morales. He offered NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum and had his presidential jet forced down by NATO while returning from a global natural gas summit in Moscow in July 2013. The Obama National Security Council mistakenly believed that Snowden, then stuck in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, had been smuggled aboard the Bolivian aircraft. Which actually took off from another airport on the other side of the Russian capital.

Sanders has done a tremendous job orienting and activating a big slice of the Democratic electorate and Democratic-leaning independent electorate. But he has not created a new flow of voters.

Which means we will start with the downside for Sanders. Despite hope and hype, he has not increased voter participation. In fact, Democratic turnout is down and he trails Clinton by a large margin in the popular vote. What records are being set are in much lower-participation caucuses, in which activists have a disproportionate influence.

In reality, it is on the Republican side where primary turnout has been up this year.

So the notion that Sanders has a unique ability to turn out new voters isn't really true. But he is able to activate much of the Democratic base, especially younger voters.

For what he does have, however, and this is very significant, is a unique handle on youth voters. Technically, many of them are new, since they weren't eligible to vote before reaching a certain age. But what is actually happening is that Sanders is capturing young voters who were already the sort who were inclined to vote once they came of age.

That's a very big deal, since these folks are the future of the Democratic Party. As it happens, many of them register as independents. But they are functionally Democrats, and decidedly non-Republican, with the twist that they must be convinced to vote for Democrats. They are not the proverbial "yellow dog" Democrats of yesteryear.

Which means they present a special challenge for party leaders. Their loyalty seems much more ideological than reflexive. They are a post-Cold War generation to whom the old red-baiting of socialism, which has always been distinguished from communism, is just so much hokum.

And in Sanders, they have chosen a champion who clearly rejects the old okey-doke of spin and business-as-usual.

Perhaps even more impressive is the stunning success the Sanders campaign has had raising money online in small donations. The venerable advocate has at last hit the sweet spot in gaining vast financial support for policies which would all but guarantee an inability to raise much money for a conventional candidate.

Will Democratic leaders figure out how to accommodate this new capability on the left? Or will they reject it, as then Democratic national chairman Bob Strauss did with the very valuable George McGovern direct mail fundraising list in the 1970s?

The reality is that what Sanders has pulled off is more sustainable because it is tied to ongoing situations. A war in Vietnam can wind down and ultimately end. (End, as it happens, much as McGovern would have had it years earlier, Kissingerian and Nixonian spin to the contrary notwithstanding.)

But the present crisis of confidence in our financial and political institutions, which also drives, in a less positive way, the roiling rise of Donald Trump, is not going away.

Voters may end up choosing the more conventional Hillary Clinton in the end, but if she does not adjust her approach her presidency will be corroded from the beginning by cynicism.

For the reality is that there are limits to the Sanders appeal. And the Clintons have been at least somewhat adept in coopting elements of his message. After all, Hillary's positions are substantially to the left of what they were in 2008, significantly to the left of candidate Obama's, and far to the left of President Bill Clinton's.

The problem she is running into is that huge numbers of voters don't believe she is for real in what she is saying now.

But more than enough are for her to win this nomination.

In New York, where Sanders had hoped to break through on the big state stage -- Hillary has beaten him in six out of seven state primaries in the ten most populous states so far -- his expected surge has not materialized. This despite drawing big crowds for his rallies and out-spending her by nearly two to one.

Sanders is overwhelming Clinton on the New York airwaves but it had not made a dent in the Clinton lead going into the final weekend of campaigning. Perhaps Sanders's trip to the Vatican might prove an effective dramatic play.

Sanders has done exceptionally well in low-turnout caucus state contests dominated by activists. But, given how far behind he is in the pledged delegate count and in the popular vote, in which Hillary has an edge of some 2.3 million votes, he has to start winning most of the remaining big state primaries.

If he loses New York, that leaves only Pennsylvania and California among the big 10 states in population, along with New Jersey and Maryland among the top 20 states in population. Hillary is ahead in all four of those states.

I expect Sanders, for whom I will probably vote in the California primary because I respect what he is doing, to win at least one of those states. But he probably needs to win three out of four to maintain an argument to sustain his campaign through the convention.

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