It’s fitting that the Democratic presidential nomination will likely be decided in New York, the birthplace of Bernie Sanders and the adopted home of Hillary Clinton.
Sanders has closed gaps like this, but mainly in states that allow independents to vote in party primaries.
In New York, however, only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic presidential primary. So registered members of the Working Families, a potent progressive force in New York, will not be able to cast votes for Sanders. Not will young people who got energized in the past few weeks but neglected to register as Democrats.
If Clinton does pull out a win, it ends Sanders’s streak and all but guarantees Clinton’s nomination. If, on the other hand, Sanders should narrowly win, it doesn’t mean he wins the nomination—the two will split New York’s delegates almost evenly. His path to a delegate majority would still be exceedingly steep.
But a Sanders win, which would make eight out of the last nine, would reinforce the impression that he’s the one with momentum. And it would put the remaining states, most notably Pennsylvania and California, seriously in play.
Even with a close win for Clinton in New York, the risk for Democrats is that Clinton limps towards nomination, while the preponderance of energy and excitement are with Sanders. Alexander Burns, writing in The New York Times, has used the phrase “zombie candidate” to describe the risk, on the Republican side, that Donald Trump is effectively dead—but doesn’t know it; and based on his early lead he marches on to nomination anyway.
But there could also be something of a zombie effect with Hillary Clinton—the inevitable nominee with a surplus of delegates and a deficit of excitement.
Assuming that Clinton does win nomination, the most important question becomes whether the Democrats will muster the post-convention unity necessary to maximize a moment that doesn’t come around very often. With Republicans in disarray, the Dems have a good chance to take back the Senate, to win the presidency by a large margin, and possibly even win the House. With a convincing presidential win and a Senate majority, they could also remake the Supreme Court for more than a generation.
If a somewhat damaged Clinton is in fact the nominee, a lot will turn on what Sanders and his legions of young supporters will do, and what Clinton might do to rouse their enthusiasm.
Remember, the Democrats will meet in Philadelphia on July 25 to 28. That’s just a week after Republicans gather in Cleveland on July 18 to 21. Republicans are primed to make fools of themselves and split down the middle, with the likelihood of an independent protest candidacy (either Trump as sore loser or a business Republican as a rump candidate). With that prologue, Democrats will want to look adult and united.
What might Clinton offer Sanders and his legions of supporters? There are basically three things Clinton could do.
First is the question of whom Clinton chooses as running mate. The most often mentioned people for the vice-presidential nomination—centrists such as former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine—would do just about nothing to energize Sanders voters for the ticket.
I can think of just two people as running mates who might excite Sanders supporters. One is Sanders himself. If this seems improbable given the animosity between the two candidates, please recall that the mutual disgust between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush was far worse in 1980, but Reagan nonetheless invited Bush onto the ticket and Bush accepted.
The other is Al Franken, senator from Minnesota. He’s a Clinton supporter but very much on the Sanders wing of the Senate caucus and the party. And he has a facility for driving Republicans just nuts, with shrewdness, wit, and media smarts. The Sanders backers would love him.
(Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown would also do the job, but both would leave Democratic Senate seats to be filled by Republican governors.)
The second issue is the platform. Clinton will surely make massive concessions to keep the Sanders people on board. Even more important than the platform is what commitments Clinton will make regarding presidential appointees.
Elizabeth Warren, who has not endorsed either Sanders or Clinton, has been putting pressure on Clinton to commit to avoid naming the usual Wall Street suspects to senior economic posts. “Personnel is policy,” Warren likes to say.
Warren has positioned herself to broker unity between the Clinton and Sanders factions of the Democratic Party, and my guess is that she will succeed. Sanders wins surprisingly broad support in part because people discern that he is a mensch—a stand-up guy.
Even if he loses the nomination, I can’t believe that Sanders will go away and sulk, or urge his supporters to do likewise. He and his people, in exchange for supporting the ticket with enthusiasm, could have a lot of influence in the next Democratic administration and in succeeding ones.
How much influence? Michael Lind, writing in The New York Times Sunday Review, contends that “Trumpism and Clintonism are the future” of the two respective parties.
His argument is that the white working class resentment that has animated Trump will now become the main force in the GOP; and that mainstream center-left politics, personified by Clinton, will dominate the Democrats.
I like Lind and I’ve learned a lot from some of his other writing, but this contention strikes me as profoundly wrong. First, on the Republican side, as Nate Silver has demonstrated, Trump represents a minority of a minority. It’s wildly unlikely, after the Trump spasm, that business conservatives will fail to take back the GOP in 2020 or 2024.
And on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton seems less the wave of the future than the last in a succession of Wall Street-affiliated Democrats who turned their backs on the very real economic afflictions of younger Americans—who are flocking in droves to Sanders.
Even if she does narrowly beat Sanders for the nomination and goes on to win in November, the Democratic Party base has turned decisively left—because the rules really are rigged by elites and this economic reality has finally become a political fact for a rising generation of voters.
After 2016, the next Democratic nominee may not be a 74-year-old socialist from Brooklyn, but he or she is likely to have a lot more in common with the views and affiliations of Sanders than of Clinton. And that next leader could even peel away some Trump voters.
Win or lose, the Sanders phenomenon is real, and rooted in economic realities. If Clinton should be the Democratic nominee, the more that she grasps that fact and moves to embrace Sanders’s critique, the more likely she will be to have a successful campaign and a successful presidency.
Can she do that? Her success may well depend on it.
Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He writes columns for The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe and the New York Timesinternational edition.