The Test of Leadership as Sanders Rolls in Oregon

Robert Borosage

Bernie Sanders won the Oregon primary big last night – 54 percent to 45 percent for Hillary Clinton – while ending in a virtual tie in Kentucky (Clinton, 46.8 percent vs. Sanders, 46.3 percent). Both states were closed primaries, with independents barred from voting. That surely cost Sanders the victory in Kentucky, as he has been winning independents by large margins in primaries across the country.

In his victory speech, delivered before a vibrant crowd in Carson, Calif., Sanders attributed his progress to the power of his message. He rightly celebrated the fact that he has won young voters by huge margins across the country, concluding that, “Our vision – a vision of social justice, economic justice, racial justice and environmental justice – that is the future of this country.”

Sanders announced that the victory in Oregon is the “beginning of the final push to win California,” vowing to continue “until the last ballot is cast.” Having won over 45 percent of the pledged delegates to date, he argued that “we have the possibility – a steep climb – of going to Philadelphia with a majority of the pledged delegates.”

Sanders was clearly still angered by the machinations in the Nevada caucus, where Democratic officials astonishingly accused the Sanders campaign of “having a penchant for violence” after peremptory rulings disqualifying Sanders delegates touched off a fracas from livid supporters. Sanders asserted that the Democratic Party is “going to have to make a profound and important decision. It can do the right thing and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change. The other option for the Democratic Party is to choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big money contributions and be a party of limited participation and limited energy.”

Clinton supporters and many pundits suggest that Sanders is “misleading his followers” by failing to “prepare them to lose” and to make the turn to supporting Clinton. The Clinton campaign has surrogates arguing that while Bernie “has done his job,” but now “he is hurting Clinton” and should stand down.

But Sanders was careful in his victory lap not to claim that he will win the nomination. He acknowledged the “steep, steep climb” to be able to win even a majority of pledged delegates, which is increasingly improbable. He scoured Trump, and repeated his pledge to do everything possible to ensure his defeat.

The Clinton campaign does the math, wants to claim a victory not yet won, and turn its attention to Trump. But it will have more than enough time – too much time, in fact – for what is shaping up to be a brutal negative campaign, contrasting Trump’s puerile antics with Clinton’s ponderous argument of wizened experience and competence.

Sanders is speaking to real pain in the country. He is rousing young voters, showing them that there is an alternative, that America is not limited to a choice between unbridled and increasingly unhinged reaction and incremental politics as usual. Scorned as a “fantasist,” his platform revives a Roosevelt New Deal politics and policy that the Democrats once championed with pride.

That Sanders is continuing to win primaries, even after the entire mainstream media has counted him out and turned its attention to the Trump-Clinton face-off, is a clear testament to the power of his message and the passions that it evokes. Were Sanders to stand down suddenly, he would be doing a disservice not only to his cause, but also to Democrats and to Clinton. He is generating energy and interest that would otherwise be sorely lacking.

No one likes a sore loser, but the harder task in politics is to avoid being a sore winner. Clinton is clearly embarrassed by her inability to put away the challenge of a septuagenarian socialist. The campaign has to be worried about her weakness among young and independent voters, as well as among white men. It now has to be haunted by the prospect of demonstrations outside and inside the hall in Philadelphia. Clinton has unhappily countered the Sanders surge by becoming more a status quo candidate, wrapping herself around President Obama, arguing that she has the unique experience to produce the “incremental” change that is all that is possible. Competence is a weak counter to the bellow of rage, insult and P.T. Barnum that is the Trump candidacy, particularly with voters yearning for change.

Sanders will drive his challenge to the direction of the party and the country into the convention. He’ll push for reforms of the platform and the rules. He’ll urge Clinton to advocate a larger agenda, to put forth a bigger vision. His supporters will rally in large numbers in Philadelphia at the convention. Those passions could well spill out to the floor of the convention itself. Sanders will demand to be heard, but there is no doubt that he will rouse his supporters to the task of taking down Donald Trump.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer says that Sanders faces a “test of leadership” in cooling out his supporters and bringing them into the party. But the real test of leadership – as it has been throughout this campaign – isn’t about Sanders; it is about Clinton. Will the Clinton campaign be confident enough to be a gracious winner? Will it be smart enough to understand the importance not only of “accommodating” Sanders, but also of learning from him, embracing a bolder vision and speaking clearly to a far deeper pain? Will Clinton herself be capacious enough not simply to embrace the Sanders voters, but to reach out and earn their votes and excite their energy?

Establishment Republicans never did figure out how to deal with the passions of their voters and ended up with Donald Trump as their candidate. Hopefully, mainstream Democrats will show greater wisdom and less arrogance and figure out how to embrace Sanders and his supporters rather than to stiff-arm them.

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