Bernie Sanders believed in something. That’s why people believed in him and why his truest believers walked out in tears after their hero endorsed Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.
The idyllic Sanders vision of a country striving for economic and social justice ran into the cold calculus of politics. The rank and file of the Democratic Party would rather assume the risk of Clinton’s baggage than the risk of nominating a socialist Democrat whose platform includes free college for all. Sure, now Clinton is talking about that too.
But it’s not as big a risk coming from her, because most people believe she would find a middle ground when it comes to implementing actual policy. Which is a nicer way of saying that most people don’t believe Clinton embraces that principle or any other with the same ferocity as Sanders. Somehow, that’s supposed to make her a better match against Donald Trump.
For all of Clinton’s reassuring nods during Sanders’ long-awaited endorsement speech, the Sanders revolution is done. Words tucked into a party platform mean nothing. The words Clinton spoke at their unity rally may have more meaning but were still clearly calculated as appeasement. If so, they were wasted on the stream of loyalists who left with wet eyes right after Sanders gave Clinton that stiff hug and before she could pledge her allegiance to raising the minimum wage, combating climate change, saying no to trade deals, and cracking down on Wall Street and companies that ship jobs and profits overseas.
Clinton got the laundry list right. But she can’t duplicate the moral crusade. That’s personal.
Bernie’s backers were invested in something special: a candidate with a core set of beliefs. Lots of Clinton supporters share those beliefs. But they decided a candidate who stands up for them is unelectable and, if somehow that candidate managed to win the White House, opponents would block the policies needed to make them happen. That pragmatic — or cynical — analysis makes a Clinton, with more fluid beliefs, preferable to an uncompromising Sanders.
It’s partly the fall-out from Barack Obama’s presidency. The country has had plenty of time to see what happens when idealistic talk of hope, change, and bipartisanship runs into the reality of Washington politics. In 2008, Obama described America as purple and, in 2016, he still believes in the possibility of common ground in the most polarizing scenarios. But Congress plays to the entrenched pockets of red and blue that elect the country’s lawmakers.
On issues like immigration, trade, and national security, the 2016 presidential election is playing to red and blue America as well, but playing to it with two candidates whose true beliefs are often hard to pin down. Does Trump really believe in building a wall on the Mexican border and banning all Muslims from America? Does Clinton really oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Does Trump really oppose abortion? Will Clinton really champion campaign finance reform, as she pledged in Portsmouth on Tuesday?
No one really knows. When it comes to core values, Clinton is no Sanders, and neither is Trump. Trump’s advantage is in his willingness to say what a certain group of voters want to hear and in his showman’s ability to sound like he means it. Trump’s supporters believe in him, just like Sanders’ supporters believed in their candidate. Clinton has her loyalists, but their backing is tied to a more cerebral belief in her intellect and ability to negotiate the partisan divide, as well as the aspirations connected to electing the first female president.
When it comes to winning elections, party unity is a necessary evil. But Sanders’ supporters have every right to cry over the choice now before them.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.