Bernie Sanders never got the time of day from day one. Too old; too Jewish; representing too small a state; a loner who hadn’t even registered as a Democrat before he decided to run for the party’s presidential nomination. Above all, just plain broke — perhaps not even a millionaire, let alone a billionaire — in a blood sport, politics, where the coin of the realm is the ticket of entry. When Sanders said he’d raise his own money from small donors and refuse any from PACs, bundlers, and corporations, he was simply dismissed as a harmless gent who’d wandered off the grounds of the retirement home.
It wasn’t until large and enthusiastic crowds started following him around—and ponying up some serious dough—that the media started paying Sanders slight and reluctant attention. There’s never been a day when it has entertained the possibility that he could actually win the Democratic nomination. Even the Democratic Party establishment, which treated him as the butler might an unkempt intruder at a lawn party — and rigged the nomination rules entirely against him — was fairer than the media. Party rules say that unelected superdelegates — those loyal hacks and dogcatchers who represent its insurance against any insurgent candidacy — may not be counted in any tabulation of pledged delegates selected in the primary process because, well, the whole idea is that they aren’t pledged. That, though, is what the media has routinely been doing. The fact is, that with fewer than 55 percent of pledged voters, Hillary Clinton will probably fall a couple of hundred votes short of the Convention majority she needs for the nomination. Instead, though, we’re regularly told she’s more than 90 percent of the way home. It’s patently untrue, mathematically obvious that it’s untrue, but the media keeps squawking it anyway. Give up, Bernie, and just go home. So what if you keep winning primaries and attracting the crowds Hillary would die for. You think we’re letting anyone slip through the gates that Comcast and Disney — not to mention Goldman Sachs — can’t control?
The story of the 2016 elections so far is that the Republican establishment failed to keep their own intruder, the unlikely Donald Trump, from crashing the party and making off with the raffle, but the Democrats appear likely to succeed in doing so. Hillary Clinton may have been the worst candidate they could have found, but, hey, the Party machine spewed her out — twice. Barack Obama may have saved us from her eight years ago (but only at the cost of himself); Bernie Sanders could be doing it today, but, unlike Barack, Bernie isn’t Wall Street-vetted, and that’s an end to that.
Clinton will need Sanders in the fall, though, and the question is what price he can or should exact for his help. Bernie has said he will support the ticket and work to deny the Republicans the White House, but there’s working and working. He can make a pro forma endorsement, deliver a speech or two, and otherwise sit the campaign out on his porch. He’d be entitled to: he owes the Democrats nothing, and maybe the Clintons even less after Bill’s famous comment that Bernie’s idea of reforming Wall Street was to shoot every third banker. (And why wasn’t that at least as big a Hillary-killer as his remark in South Carolina eight years ago that Barack Obama was telling “the biggest fairy-tale I ever heard?” Ah, but the media amplifies what it wants to, and muffles what it wants put to sleep. Ask Howard Dean, whose campaign in 2004 got deep-sixed by a harmless war whoop a couple of days after he suggested that media conglomerates might be broken up.)
Right now, it appears that Sanders will try to extract his pound of flesh in the form having his pledged votes counted on the Convention floor and trying to nail a couple of progressive planks into the Party platform. It may make him and his supporters feel that their whole campaign hadn’t just been a mirage, but the practical effect will be zero. There is only one thing Sanders can do to project the progressive debate into the fall election, and give it a purchase in a Democratic administration. That is to demand a spot on the ticket as the price of actively campaigning with—and for—Clinton.
Vice presidents are usually chosen to balance a ticket, not tilt it, and it is already obvious that, having been pushed to the left thus far by Sanders, Clinton now plans to pivot right to attract disaffected Republican voters. If she does poorly in the remaining primaries, however, her Democratic base may look vulnerable. Given the likely disarray of the Republican convention, moreover, she will wish to project the image of a party united around her, and fractious support for Sanders in Philadelphia will dilute if not erase an important part of her campaign strategy. In short, even if Bernie were not to play the spoiler directly, he still has cards in his hand.
The question is what he could gain for himself as part of a unity ticket with Clinton, and where that would leave the movement that, either within or outside the Democratic tent, he has made it clear he wants to keep going — and leading. Let’s look at the potential benefits and costs.
The vice presidency, as a former occupant of the office once put it, is not worth a bucket of warm spit. The job, as traditionally defined, is to be the President’s loyal surrogate and supporter. Joe Biden has played this role for the past eight years. We presume he’s won some battles inside the White House; we know he’s lost some. But, until very recently, there has never been any public distance between him and Obama, and some of that has no doubt stemmed from Obama’s coolness to the idea of Joe as his successor. On the other hand, Biden’s predecessor, Dick Cheney, was so powerful a figure that his notional boss, George W. Bush, was widely regarded as his puppet — an impression that, at least for the first five years of the Bush administration, was essentially true.
Clinton is unlikely to be bullied by a Vice President Sanders, and, if Sanders were to take an independent line, he would probably be frozen out of policy discussions. That, however, wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea. The vice presidency is a constitutional enigma; it is second in line in executive authority, but it has few defined functions and no enumerated powers. But it is also separately designated on the national ballot, so that one does not vote for a president with a vice president, but for a president and a vice president. This means that, constitutionally, the vice president is an independent figure. Thomas Jefferson, as vice president, was a bitter political enemy of President John Adams, and they opposed each other for the presidency in 1800 in a campaign of singular nastiness. Sanders wouldn’t need to go that far to stake out his own position and keep a progressive agenda in front of the American public. The fact of his public position as one of only two constitutional officers elected by the entire people would give him a unique platform; he would be, in effect, a kind of tribune, representing an at least substantial portion of the population. Perhaps most importantly, he would represent, for the first time in at least 50 years, a progressive in national office. Of course, the idea is to get such a figure into the top job, but, failing that, the vice presidency could be an important stepping-stone to the Oval Office.
To assert one’s own independence while not appearing to undermine the administration of which one was nominally part would be an artful political act indeed. Some would, no doubt, accuse Sanders of selling Mrs. Clinton out; some would accuse him of selling himself out. Without Sanders, though, Clinton will certainly either pick an anodyne running mate, or someone — an Elizabeth Warren, a Sherrod Brown — she felt confident of being able to neuter politically. The progressive left, having misplaced its bets on Barack Obama in 2008 and demonstrated the futility of a protest movement disengaged from the political process in the Occupy movement, would spend four more years in the wilderness. Sometimes the wilderness is the right place to be, but, after two false starts, it’s time for progressives to show some concrete result for their efforts.
The question, assuming that Sanders would be interested in joining Clinton to begin with and that Clinton herself would feel the need of a unity ticket strongly enough to accept him, is whether Sanders would not lose so much credibility with the supporters who have enabled his campaign thus far that whatever he might say or do would be fatally compromised. For sure, it would be a gamble. And, from a genuinely progressive point of view, the question would be whether anyone on the left could ever be forgiven for putting Hillary Clinton in the White House. But that would be another question.
Of course, in this season of surprises anything is still possible, and the last primaries could show a Clinton so vulnerable that the superdelegates might panic and try to parachute Joe Biden in, or even turn to Sanders himself. One thing’s for sure: anyone who thinks Donald Trump’s a pushover in November is in for the biggest surprise of all.