Yamiche Alcindor’s New York Times article, “Bernie Sanders, Shifting Tone, Takes On Democratic Party” signals a new stage in the Vermont senator’s campaign. No one should expect Sanders to fold his campaign anytime soon, and he already has more than enough delegates secured to be a force at the Democratic convention. But his comments at his speech yesterday in Springfield, Oregon do indicate that the Democratic presidential campaign — and the Democratic party’s efforts to win down-ballot — are entering a delicate, potentially transformative phase. As Alcindor explains:
Senator Bernie Sanders spent Thursday afternoon laying out in more detail than usual his views for shaping the Democratic Party’s agenda and the need for elected officials to focus on achieving progressive political goals.
The change in his campaign tone — focusing less on attacking Hillary Clinton — comes as the Vermont senator lays off staff members after several tough losses on Tuesday. Though Mr. Sanders remains adamant that he wants to win the Democratic presidential nomination, his shift hints that the senator is looking past the nominating fight and toward a future role in shaping the party.
Sanders made one of the best statements thus far about what the central message of the Democratic Party ought to be, if it is to win not just the white house, but majorities in the Senate, House and make gains in the state legislatures. As Alcindor quotes Sanders:
“The Democratic Party has to reach a fundamental conclusion: Are we on the side of working people or big-money interests?” Mr. Sanders asked the crowd. “Do we stand with the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor? Or do we stand with Wall Street speculators and the drug companies and the insurance companies? Now our job is not just to revitalize the Democratic Party, not only to open the doors to young people and working people — our job is to revitalize American democracy.”
That’s about the clearest short statement of what the Democratic Party must decide that has been made so far. If Democratic leaders can rise to Sanders’ challenge, and unify to make that the party’s clear brand, this could be a pivot towards a new era of progressive change.
Sanders’ comments included a sobering assessment of why Democrats have booted numerous electoral opportunities in recent years:
“The problem we are having now is not, in my view, that the Republicans are winning elections,” Mr. Sanders said. “The problem is that the Democrats are losing elections. In November of 2014, the midterm elections, 63 percent of the American people did not vote; 80 percent of young people and low-income people did not vote. And I think the reason for that is the Democratic Party up to now has not been clear about which side they are on on the major issues facing this country.”
This is why the Repubicans are so nervous about Sanders, even though he is not the front-runner. It’s the fact that Sanders understands the importance of a strong, simply-stated message identifying the Democratic Party as the best hope for America’s middle-class, as well as low-income families. Yesterday, Donald Trump even tweeted encouragement for Sanders to run as an Independent, even though Sanders has made it crystal clear that’s not going to happen.
It can be argued that Hillary Clinton has done well-enough as it is, having received over 3 million more votes than has Sanders (and 2 million more than Trump) in the primaries thus far. But Clinton is winning more because of her impressive record of experience and her effective campaign strategy and management than her message, which remains a little too ambivalent for many progressive Democrats. The worst mistake would be for her to miss the opportunity Sanders his presenting: to keep doing what she has been doing to win, but also refocus the Democratic message in a direction that is more appealing to progressives and working-class voters.
Sanders is really talking about the swing voters she is in danger of leaving on the table, and who can make a difference between a narrow victory and a Democratic landslide. These voters may well stay home, or worse, vote for Trump, if down-ballot Dems, as well as Clinton, fail to leverage the unifying message Sanders presents.
Win or lose, Sanders will be bringing over 1500 delegates ot the Democratic convention, more than enough to earn serious respect for his views about refocusing the Democratic message. Everything depends on how well he and Clinton respect and treat each other in the months ahead, and the quality of their working relationship to secure the broadest possible Democratic victory on November 8th.