Get serious, Sanders

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a rally outside of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, D.C., June 9. (Newscom/CQ Roll Call/Tom Williams)

By any and all standards, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has had a great year. He jumped into the Democratic Party's nominating contest with little chance at yanking the presidential nod away from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Everyone assumed his was a "message candidacy," that is, an effort to use the nominating contest, and especially the nationally televised debates, to shine light on the causes he cares about, most especially the need to confront income inequality and the influence of money in politics.

Then his rallies started drawing hundreds and then thousands of people, especially young people. They were not turned off by his self-identification as a socialist. Indeed, that designation, along with his unstudied speaking style and ever-rambunctious hair, all combined to create an air of authenticity around the candidate.

Sanders tapped into the organizing and fundraising network first assembled by MoveOn.org. He started winning primaries, albeit mostly in rural states where plenty of voters, Democrats and Republicans alike, appreciated that Sanders' ambiguous stance on gun rights was more akin to their own.

But it was too late. By the time Sanders grew comfortable campaigning in black churches, Clinton had opened up a wide delegate lead that made it virtually impossible for Sanders to catch up, given the Democratic Party's proportional allocation of delegates. In states where a significant portion of the Democratic Party electorate were black or Latino, Sanders bombed. Despite Sanders' investing heavily in organizing in some Southern states, Clinton swept the South. Despite Clinton having the highest unfavorable ratings of any Democratic nominee in history, Sanders could not overtake her.

The day before the June 7 primaries in California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana and the Dakotas, The Associated Press called the race for Clinton: She had amassed enough delegates to secure the nomination.

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The question for Sanders now is how to continue to highlight his concerns and further his agenda.

In the gap between the time I write this and the time you read it, he may have endorsed Clinton, or he may have stuck to his promise to take his fight to the convention floor next month in Philadelphia. No matter how he moves forward, what is most important is that he gets serious and stays serious, avoiding the self-destructive tendencies of the left.

In the last couple of weeks of the campaign, Sanders shifted into a fantastic universe of thought, in which the superdelegates would switch their allegiance to him, even though Clinton had won more states than he did, won more pledged delegates and, most importantly, won by more than 4 million votes. He spoke about all the people he brought into the party, but neglected to mention that turnout in the primaries this year lagged behind that of 2008 when Democrats last had a contested primary fight.

Some of his supporters went further, suggesting there was no real difference between Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, a moral equivalence that is at once ridiculous and narcissistic, believing that only Sanders and his team can save the union.

In an effort to advance the prospect of a unified party, the Democratic National Committee allowed Sanders to name some people to the platform committee. His selections were not encouraging. He named James Zogby, which was fine by me, as Zogby has a long history of chastising Democrats for failing to attend to the views of white working-class voters.

But Zogby is also an advocate for Palestinian concerns, which is the latest, and most morally obtuse, fetish of the left. Of course, the celebration of the Palestinians cuts across other important concerns: In March, Hamas executed one of their leading commanders after he was accused of engaging in gay sex. Say what you want about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israelis do not execute people for homosexuality.

One of Sanders' other appointments was equally dismal: Princeton University Professor Cornel West, who possesses that variety of moral idiocy unique to elite academic circles. How else to explain his comment last year that President Barack Obama is "the first niggerized black president ... a black person who is afraid and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy and fighting against white supremacy"?

You can go into any bar, hair salon or restaurant here in Prince George's County, Md., a majority-minority county where I live, and no one, absolutely no one, will agree with the professor's assessment. It is morally obscene and intellectually dishonest, but that does not disqualify it from the pantheon of liberal views among those very removed from real life in their academic perches.

Sanders would be better advised to use his fundraising juggernaut to help elect Democrats to Congress. One of Sanders' chief complaints about "the system" is that it lets rich people exercise too much power in our democracy, although his campaign is actually a testimony to the fact that this is not always the case. In almost every month this year, Sanders raised more money than Clinton.

An extra $10 million will not determine a presidential contest, but an extra million can have a huge impact on a congressional race. Electing Democrats in swing districts would help Sanders achieve his agenda more surely than anything else he could do, even if the kind of Democrat who can win a swing district might not meet the ideological purity tests of the left.

The most important contribution Sanders can make is to keep the spotlight on income inequality and insist that Clinton campaign for the votes of white working-class voters who have felt ignored by Democrats too busy celebrating victories in the culture wars to notice the decline of whole communities in large swaths of the upper Midwest. Sanders can champion community colleges and vocational education. He can fight for increased infrastructure spending in the Rust Belt states. He can point to the challenges facing working moms and the need for affordable day care.

One wishes that he could also encourage Clinton to moderate her rhetoric on abortion, which does not sit well with the more traditional values of many small-town voters. But, sadly, Planned Parenthood is to the Democrats what the National Rifle Association is to the Republicans, the one special interest no one dares to anger.

Sanders has accomplished a great deal, and he can yet achieve more. But only if he departs the fantasyland in which he has been living the past few months and gets serious about the issues he cares about.

The last thing he wants to be known as is the guy who divided the Democrats and handed the White House to Donald Trump.

[Michael Sean Winters writes about religion and politics at NCRonline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic.]

This story appeared in the July 1-14, 2016 print issue under the headline: Get serious, Sanders .

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