Sanders Camp Flirts with Going Full “Burn It Down”

Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA, on January 30, 2016. Photo by Dennis van Tine/Sipa USA
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The New York Times posted an article late Wednesday evening which confirms and expands on much of what I’ve been hearing from within the Sanders campaign in recent weeks and days. The top leaders of the campaign are now saying openly that they are focused on dealing a crushing blow to Clinton in the California primary on June 7th and aren’t concerned whether it damages Clinton’s chances in the general election or not.

We need to be careful in reading the Times article because a good number of the key connecting points are not direct quotes but summaries of interviews conducted by the bylined reporters. That is a situation where nuance and ambiguity can be severely compressed. But the actual quotes seem clear enough to rule out much chance of that.

For instance …

While Mr. Sanders says he does not want Mr. Trump to win in November, his advisers and allies say he is willing to do some harm to Mrs. Clinton in the shorter term if it means he can capture a majority of the 475 pledged delegates at stake in California and arrive at the Philadelphia convention with maximum political power.

Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Mr. Sanders, said the campaign did not think its attacks would help Mr. Trump in the long run, but added that the senator’s team was “not thinking about” the possibility that they could help derail Mrs. Clinton from becoming the first woman elected president.

Much of this is consistent with what I hear myself which is that this is being driven and fueled by Sanders himself, with two or three of his closest advisors in tow.

They also seem to be making it up as they go along.

Consider a few points: Sanders has in the last three days essentially declared war on the institutional Democratic party, giving it an ultimatum to open up its doors to people who want ‘real change’. Fair enough. But his entire stated strategy is to do well enough in the final run of primaries that super-delegates, the embodiment of the institutional party, decide to drop Clinton and switch their allegiance to Sanders.

That makes no sense.

You don’t gain the acceptance or support of people whose very legitimacy you are currently attacking. You also don’t gain trust by threatening a convention meltdown that these same people almost universally fear threatens to hand the election to Donald Trump. My point here isn’t even about who’s corrupt or ‘for the people’ or ‘against the people’ in Sanders’ increasingly manichean worldview. It’s just logic. You don’t get party insiders to abandon their chosen candidate and embrace you by doing everything you can to demonstrate that you view them as your enemy.

There’s also this …

Advisers to Mr. Sanders said on Wednesday that he was newly resolved to remain in the race, seeing an aggressive campaign as his only chance to pressure Democrats into making fundamental changes to how presidential primaries and debates are held in the future. They said he also held out hope of capitalizing on any late stumbles by Mrs. Clinton or any damage to her candidacy, whether by scandal or by the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump.

This is almost comical.

The Democratic party and its Chicago convention were torn apart in 1968 over a fundamental cleavage over the Vietnam War. The Sanders camp is going to blow up the convention to push debate schedule reform? That’s amazing. Reform of the primary process is a much more substantive matter. But remember, as I’ve argued before, the parts of the process most in need of reform (Caucuses and post-election day shenanigans) are the ones helping Sanders the most! Now his whole campaign is based on getting the superdelegates – which for most of the campaign he has said constitute the core anti-democratic aspect of the process – to hand him the nomination. Consistency is an overrated commodity in much of life, especially in politics. But you can’t make the logic of your arguments so structurally unsound that they collapse under the weight of their own ridiculousness.

Let’s start with a reality check. Does anyone think there weren’t enough debates this cycle? Or that they prevented Sanders from winning? As the Times article notes at one point: “Several described the campaign’s message as having devolved into a near-obsession with perceived conspiracies on the part of Mrs. Clinton’s allies.” Indeed.

It is painfully conspicuous how little the Sanders camp is now pressing its issue agenda as its chances of winning the nomination have diminished. On the contrary, it’s debates and a ‘rigged’ primary process, points that are either trivial and nonsensical or hypocritical inasmuch as the ‘rigged’ parts of the process are the ones the Sanders’ campaign has used most effectively. The process reforms Sanders is now marching to the convention for seem like little more than attempts to prosecute and vindicate his overarching claim that the primary process in which he lost was illegitimate. In other words, his justification for continuing is mostly a feedback loop of his refusal to accept that he came close but ultimately lost.

Jeet Heer makes the argument at TNR that as toxic as this process has become, it pales in comparison to 2008 when Clinton and her most dead-end followers acted atrociously in the latter part of the campaign. He makes a decent argument. As he notes, the 2008 battle was not only acrimonious but took on a distinctly racial edge which was toxic, needless and dark. The whole thing was truly awful. Go back and read what I wrote about it at the time. Speaking for myself, I’d say it permanently lowered my estimation of Bill Clinton.

But there’s a part Jeet leaves out. Both sides in the 2008 struggle had profound personal and professional connections to and investment in the Democratic party. That put real limits on how far the acrimony would go. Even if you insist on seeing Clinton’s actions at the end of the 2008 primary process through the most cynical prism possible, it’s clear she was not willing to destroy her own future political relevance or her husband’s political legacy by not getting behind Obama in the general. Sanders and Jeff Weaver have no such investment on the line. Indeed, their own political background is one as dissidents whose political posture is one of resisting and opposing institutional politics. Dissident politics has a glorious history of its own. But it’s not one that leads to Kumbaya moments at national party conventions.

So even if the acrimony or darkness is comparable, indeed perhaps worse in 2008, the structural reality is a bit different.

From what I can tell, the current Sanders campaign is riven between people who are increasingly upset or bewildered by what we might call the resurgent “burn it down” turn of Sanders outlook and others who are fully immersed in the feedback loop of grievance and paranoia that sees all the political events of the last year as a series of large and small scale conspiracies to deny the rectitude and destiny of Bernie Sanders. I’ve seen many, many campaigns. People put everything into it and losing is brutal and punishing. Folks on the losing side frequently go a little nuts, sometimes a lot nuts. The 2008 denouement really was pretty crazy. But it’s not clear that this time we have any countervailing force – adulthood, institutional buy-in, future careers, over-riding pragmatism to rein things in.

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