Bernie Sanders fully understood that the New York primary was his reckoning. If he couldn’t beat Hillary Clinton there, the epicenter for his anti-Wall Street rhetoric, and the place he once called home, then the math would just become too difficult. Granted, Sanders’ faced an uphill battle with or without the Empire State, but winning there would have created a powerful symbol of success that could have jumpstarted his flagging hopes.
Sanders didn’t just lose New York, he lost decisively, effectively putting an end to any hopes he had of taking his democratic socialist vision into the White House. And it quickly became clear that Sanders grasped what happened.
“I look forward to issue-oriented campaigns in the 14 contests to come,” Sanders said in a statement following Clinton’s victories, a thinly veiled message that his campaign goals were shifting. “The people in every state in this country should have the right to determine who they want as president and what the agenda of the Democratic Party should be. That’s why we are in this race until the last vote is case. That is why this campaign is going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with as many delegates as possible to fight for a progressive party platform…”
In other words, Sanders knew that his political chances were dashed, and sought to transition the remainder of his campaign to getting some policy wins. To emphasize the shift, Sanders began laying off hundreds of campaign staffers in states that had already held their primary.
And then something strange happened.
Despite signaling to the world, and his opponent, that he was effectively throwing in the towel, Sanders upset Clinton in Indiana’s Democratic primary on Tuesday night. Suddenly, Sanders was back to his old feisty self.
“The Clinton campaign thinks this is over. They’re wrong,” Sanders said in the statement. “Maybe it’s over for the insiders and the party establishment, but the voters in Indiana had a different idea. The campaign wasn’t over for them. It isn’t over for the voters in West Virginia. It isn’t over for Democrats in Oregon, New Jersey and Kentucky. It isn’t over for voters in California and all the other states with contests still to come.”
To be clear, it is over. At least, the race for the Democratic nomination is over. Sanders undoubtedly knows that. If anything, by capturing at least 37 additional pledged delegates, Clinton made it mathematically impossible for Sanders to clinch the nomination with pledged delegates alone, forcing him to try to sway so-called superdelegates, most of whom have opted to support Clinton.
What isn’t over is Sanders’ ability to pull Clinton, and the party, toward his position on a number of issues. And that’s a problem for Democrats hoping to switch focus to the general election. It means they have to continue playing defense on their left flank, even as they attempt to move resources to play offense against the right. But that comes with significant risk. If Clinton opts to ignore Sanders, she runs the risk of alienating the grassroots mobilizers who have powered Sanders’ insurgent campaign.
Sanders’ for his part, isn’t shying away from a fight.
In his victory speech in Indiana, he pummeled Clinton for being “dependent on powerful and wealthy special interests.” He mocked her $225,000 speeches to Wall Street, saying “it must be a speech that will solve all of our global problems. It must be a speech that is written in Shakespearean prose” and then called for her to release the transcripts. And he made sure to remind Democrats that “[s]he voted for the war in Iraq.”
There is little Clinton can do to defend against those attacks, and the fact that Sanders is making them, means he’ll continually undermine her changes of winning over a portion of his constituency. But more troubling is the fact that Clinton has to continue to try. And that means she has to tack further and further towards uncomfortably liberal positions on a number of issues that will take her out of mainstream political thought and compromise her ability to win the malleable middle voter.
Win or lose, Sanders continues to change Clinton. And that’s exactly what he wants.
Photo credit: Michael Vadon