Bernie Sanders articulated a vision that all liberals can embrace: universal healthcare, addressing income inequality, access to an affordable college education, getting money out of politics, combating climate change, raising the minimum wage, reforming our criminal justice system. He often couched these in terms of how the United States trails the rest of the developed world on these issues. I’m not sure that is always the best way to frame it. But it’s true. We have a lot of work to do in order to advance the ideals that we hold dear.
The problem many of us had with Sanders is that – beyond the vision – he didn’t present a very realistic way of reaching those goals. Some people call the alternative “incrementalism.” I would suggest that it has more to do with understanding the interconnectivity of the systems we are working with and what it means to live in a pluralistic democracy.
In the end, the changes that were made to the Democratic platform last week indicate that the party is ready to embrace the kind of vision Sanders offered. Some credit his campaign with getting us there and others think it was on its way already. But that is not likely to be a question future historians will pay much attention to. In a way, Speaker Paul Ryan is right when he says that “this is not the Democratic Party of the mid-1990’s.” I’m not so sure that the party has moved to the left so much as that it has more boldly articulated its liberal agenda. Bernie Sanders has certainly played a role in that.
But while Democrats have embraced a lot of Bernie Sanders’ vision, they should reject some of the rhetoric he used during his campaign. In too many ways Sanders was divisive. His insinuations that anyone who disagreed with his specific proposals was simply part of the establishment that was corrupted by money stymied any meaningful discussion among those who have different ideas. To the extent that liberals embrace openness and creativity in solving problems, he presented as someone more resembling an ideologue.
Some of the issues the Sanders campaign raised about the Democratic primary process are very worthy of discussion. For example, should the party get rid of caucuses, should primaries be open and what should be the role/function of superdelegates? But his constant whining about why he trailed Clinton throughout the process was not simply annoying, it was too often ugly and disingenuous. Suggesting that her overwhelming wins in the South could be dismissed because they were red states offended African Americans (who are often the majority of Democrats in those states) and didn’t line up well with his wins in very red Mountain states. Flipping from criticizing superdelegates to proposing that they support him regardless of the outcome of the primary never made any sense at all.
It is one thing to play hardball in a tough primary race. But for a candidate whose biggest asset was a compelling vision, the tactics of the Sanders campaign undermined the very credibility he depended on. That not only tarnished the candidate himself, but the quality of the vision he was presenting.
We could do a similar assessment after any failed candidacy. There was no shortage of that with the Clinton campaign in 2008 or the Dean campaign in 2004. All of these can be tallied up as “lessons learned” for future races.