The New York Times’ piece today on Bernie Sanders’ campaign is generating quite a bit of discussion, and for good reason: whether you support or oppose the senator’s candidacy, the article is raising a few points about the race for the Democratic nomination that often go overlooked.
Mr. Sanders is now campaigning more effectively than many expected, exposing Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate, and is positioning himself to win contests like the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday. But allies and advisers of Mr. Sanders say they missed opportunities to run an aggressive political operation in 2015 that would have presented more of a challenge to Mrs. Clinton.She has now firmly built a big lead in delegates needed to clinch the nomination – a margin that would be smaller if Mr. Sanders had run differently last year, according to interviews with more than 15 people who are on his team or close to him.
The fact that the article exists is itself notable, because it reads like a pre-mortem analysis of what went wrong. NBC’s First Read noted this morning, for example, “It’s hard to sustain a revolution when the revolutionaries are admitting that the war is over and that they lost. And that’s the impression you get after reading the story.”
When a campaign – even one that’s exceeding everyone’s expectations – is coming up short, it’s inevitable that staffers and supporters will engage in “what went wrong” speculation. This Times piece includes people close to the Vermont senator pondering some of these very questions.
Chief among them is whether Sanders should have attacked Hillary Clinton in 2015 as aggressively as his campaign is now. For what it’s worth, I’m skeptical this would have made a dramatic difference, largely because if Sanders had become a confrontational attack dog last year, the entire tone and style of his candidacy would have been less appealing. It’s easy to forget, but when presidential hopefuls go on the offensive against their rivals, they usually end up driving up their own negatives, even while undermining their opponents.
In other words, if Sanders and his campaign team had spent months parroting Republican talking points about email servers, Bernie wouldn’t be Bernie, and it’s likely he wouldn’t have had the level of success he’s already enjoyed.
But there’s another element in the piece that struck me as arguably more important: when the race got underway last year, Sanders wasn’t exactly in it to win it.
He was originally skeptical that he could beat Mrs. Clinton, and his mission in 2015 was to spread his political message about a rigged America rather than do whatever it took to win the nomination. By the time he caught fire with voters this winter and personally began to believe he could defeat Mrs. Clinton, she was already on her way to building an all but insurmountable delegate lead.
This is no small detail. When the independent senator launched his campaign, many assumed Sanders was running a classic protest candidacy, built on an intention to raise the visibility of the issues he cares about most. The goal wasn’t to become president of the United States, but rather, to shine a national spotlight on the candidate’s priorities, while making every effort to shift the debate to the left.
As it turns out, many assumed that because it was true. As the Times piece makes clear, Sanders didn’t actually expect to win; he didn’t have any real appetite for retail campaigning; and he wasn’t prepared to shirk his Senate duties just to spend more time campaigning. Indeed, for months, he only wanted to spend about three days a week on the campaign trail.
The Vermonter was serious about his platform, of course, but the campaign itself was about drawing attention to the issues Sanders considers important, not necessarily becoming the Leader of the Free World in 2017.
Except, as we now know, Sanders’ attitude about his chances changed over time, and his approach to the race shifted once he believed he had a credible chance to win. Now, Clinton criticisms that Sanders once rejected are suddenly fair game. Last fall, when Sanders’ supporters would boo Clinton at his rallies, he would quickly urge them to stop. Now, the senator is content to let the booing continue.
Sanders transitioned from a protest candidate who wanted a platform for his ideas to a presidential candidate who wanted the nomination.
The problem, however, is that in a race for delegates, in a system in which they’re allocated proportionally, closing a large gap is extremely, if not prohibitively, difficult.
As for the road ahead, if Team Sanders realizes that it’s almost certainly too late to catch Clinton, the question then becomes how best to spend the time, energy, and tens of millions of dollars they have between now and June. Paul Krugman has some constructive suggestions for the senator and his team, but I suspect they won’t care for his advice.