WASHINGTON – After Tuesday night, Bernie Sanders’ infinitesimal chance of winning the Democratic nomination rests on one possibility: that Democratic superdelegates will overturn the will of the voters.
This is no small irony: Sanders spent much of his campaign railing against superdelegates and fighting to eliminate the practice of giving party officials and establishment types a say in the nominating process. But the only thing keeping him in the race is the vain hope that superdelegates, the vast majority of whom support Hillary Clinton, will defy the popular vote and throw their support to him.
Little noticed in Clinton’s resounding victories in California and New Jersey Tuesday: She clinched an outright majority of regular, pledged delegates. Her 2,203 (to Sanders’ 1,828) are a majority of the 4,051, even before the District of Columbia has the final Democratic primary next week. If there were no such thing as superdelegates – as Sanders claims to desire – Clinton already would have won.
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For some context: Clinton’s lead of nearly 400 pledged delegates is triple the lead Barack Obama had over Clinton when the 2008 primaries ended. Clinton has won 13 of the past 19 Democratic contests, compared with Obama’s wins in three of the last 10 in 2008. Clinton has won 15.6 million votes, which is 3.7 million more than Sanders has received. (As for the Sanders claim to have brought new voters to the party, turnout has been lower than it was in 2008.)
By Sanders’ own argument, superdelegates have no right to overturn the result of the popular vote. On June 4, 2008, Sanders, who hadn’t endorsed during the primaries, decided to back Obama – days before Clinton dropped out and months before superdelegates voted. At the time, Sanders’ hometown Burlington Free Press wrote: “Sanders said he held off supporting either of the Democrats because he has made it a custom not to support any Democrat for the presidential nomination until the party had chosen its nominee.”
So why isn’t Sanders using the same standard now, even though Clinton has an outright majority of pledged delegates and a lopsided number of superdelegate commitments? Call it the politics of pique.
Politico, in an extensive look at the waning days of the Sanders campaign, described a candidate aggrieved. “Sanders is himself filled with resentment, on edge, feeling like he gets no respect – all while holding on in his head to the enticing but remote chance that Clinton may be indicted before the convention,” Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti wrote. “His guiding principle under attack has basically boiled down to a feeling that multiple aides sum up as: ‘Screw me? No, screw you.’”
Politico reported about an email from the Sanders rapid-response director about the campaign’s scorched-earth position against the Democratic Party in Nevada, “just to pick up two f – ing delegates in a state he lost.” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver replied that Sanders himself is “driving this train.”
So, if this is all about Sanders’ hurt feelings, let us praise and affirm him. He has run a brilliant campaign, invigorated the left, pushed Clinton in his direction and made his populist politics ascendant in the Democratic Party. He is entitled to his share of happiness. He’s good enough, he’s smart enough and, doggone it, people like him.
But it’s time to abandon the canard that he is saving democracy in his bid to rid the party of superdelegates. In the young history of superdelegates, there never has been a case when party-appointed delegates overruled the popular vote – even in 2008, when Clinton had early commitments from most of the superdelegates. Had Sanders won the popular vote, they would have swung to him, as they did to Obama.
Sanders seemed to be of two minds Tuesday night when he delivered a speech alternately defiant and conciliatory.
He vowed to “continue the fight in the next primary, in Washington, D.C.,” and to “take our fight for social, economic, racial and environmental justice to Philadelphia” for the Democratic convention.
But he also said that “we will not allow Donald Trump to become president of the United States,” and that, in regards to Clinton, “our fight is to transform this country and to understand that we are in this together.”
As the crowd cheered Sanders in California Tuesday night, The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported, his wife whispered to him: “They’re still with you.”
They are. And Sanders can either lead them to work with Clinton for the ideas he believes in – or to nurse pointless grievances over a race Clinton won, fair and square.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.