fb-pixel Skip to main content
Michael A. Cohen

An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders listened to a question during a campaign stop on Friday in Gettysburg, PA. Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

Dear Bernie:

I know you and I have had our differences over the past few months, so perhaps I’m not the person you’re most inclined to listen to about your political future. But please, hear me out.

You’ve had a pretty good run so far. A year ago, you were trailing Hillary Clinton by 50 points in the polls. No one gave you much of a chance of winning a single state, let alone 16 of them. And there certainly wasn’t a person alive who thought you’d out-raise the mighty Clinton campaign-cash harvesting machine. You spent $46 million in April. Are you kidding me?


You’ve not only done well at the polls, but you’ve raised the profile of income inequality, an issue on which you’ve been focused for decades and is today, in part because of your campaign, on top of the nation’s political agenda. People are actually seriously talking about changing the rules for choosing presidential nominees, which are in major need of a shake-up. Beyond that, you’ve inspired a vast number of young people to believe that change is possible within the political system; and that their advocacy and their voices can make a real difference.

These are major accomplishments. They have the potential to be transformative and to re-shape not only the direction of the Democratic Party, but also American politics in general.

But here’s the thing – and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but maybe a little tough love is in order — you’re not going to win the Democratic nomination. This isn’t one of these “yeah, it’s a long shot, but maybe if I get lucky and everything goes my way” things. You’re not going to overcome Hillary Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates and you’re certainly not going to convince super delegates to vote for you over her. I mean, think about it: You’re trying to convince them to vote against the person who is almost certainly going to win in pledged delegates.


And even if you could win that way, would you really want to? In fact, if we’re really being honest here, the way your campaign has gone the past six weeks isn’t the way you want to win — or even the way you want to lose. Remember back in May 2015 when you said you didn’t want this campaign to be about Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders? Remember when you said you weren’t going to engage in character assassination and personal attacks?

Well, that hasn’t worked out so well over the past few weeks. I don’t want to rehash all the things you’ve said about Clinton that you once suggested you wouldn’t, but you are now running a real risk of undercutting the one person who you’ve said would be a better president on her worst day than all the Republicans currently running for the office. Even worse, you’re in real danger of sullying your otherwise inspiring campaign for president.

Look, I get it. You’re a politician; you’re a competitive guy. You want to win. Who wouldn’t? It’s like being a top-notch athlete and not wanting to take home a gold medal. No one aspires for silver, after all. And truth be told, when the odds were looking a bit longer for Hillary Clinton back in 2008, she didn’t exactly cover herself in glory during the last few months of the Democratic primary campaign.


So, mistakes have been made. Tough attacks delivered. Feelings hurt. It happens. But the question now — after the walloping you took in New York and the long odds you face in the upcoming primary states – is this: What’s your plan?

I suppose you could really go scorched earth on Clinton and fight this out to the convention. But why would you want to do that? Isn’t the real target on the Republican side? Hillary Clinton might not be your cup of tea, but surely on 100 out of 100 issues that you care about, she’d be better than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

So here’s my suggestion: Don’t end your campaign, re-frame it. Rather than talking about Hillary Clinton’s speech transcripts like you did yesterday in Pennsylvania, and rather than boasting about how you don’t have a Super PAC and your opponent does, focus on the issues that got you into this race in the first place. Keep talking about inequality, reforming campaign finance, and making the rich pay their fair share, but shift the focus away from Clinton.

Rather than raising money to run more ads that likely aren’t going to move the polling needle, start raising money for liberal Democrats in swing districts, Democrats who, with that little extra boost from your supporters, might be able to win in November. After all, if you want a political revolution, don’t you need to elect a few more like-minded Democrats to Congress? And with Trump as the likely GOP nominee, the chances of a Democratic wave in the House and the Senate are that much greater. Maybe focus on local races in places like Florida or Ohio or North Carolina, where Republican-dominated state legislatures are putting up restrictions on abortion rights, voting rights, and LGBT rights. You have the megaphone and the money to get your supporters involved in the nitty-gritty of local politics that Democrats have ignored for far too long. You want to beat the Democratic establishment? Become the Democratic establishment.


Rather than talking about a revolution that isn’t going to come this year, get your supporters focused on a more achievable set of goals. You’ve accomplished so much in the past year — don’t let your pursuit of the presidency get in the way of the kind of real change that could ensure your campaign is not a footnote but a first step toward a more progressive America.



Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.