WASHINGTON – Eight years ago, I spent an election night in a basement gymnasium in Manhattan, watching Hillary Clinton and her campaign advisers take up residence in a parallel universe.
It was June 3, 2008, and Barack Obama had just clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, making official a victory that had seemed inevitable for months. But Terry McAuliffe, then the campaign chairman and emcee of this Clinton “victory” party, recited a list of Clinton’s primary wins and introduced her as “the next president of the United States.”
Clinton that night made no mention of her defeat, boasting that she won “more votes than any primary candidate in history.”
Yet four days later, Clinton graciously bowed out of the race. In a concession speech at the National Building Museum in Washington, she said she and her supporters would “do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States.” Some in the hall booed – but Clinton delivered her supporters to Obama in November.
Recalling this serene end to the bitter and extended 2008 Democratic primary battle, I’m not inclined to join in all the hand-wringing about the damage Bernie Sanders is doing to Clinton’s chances in November by remaining in the race.
Tempers flared this week after a Sanders supporter, actress Rosario Dawson, mentioned Monica Lewinsky at a campaign rally. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a Clinton supporter, demanded Sanders tell his supporters “to stop providing aid and comfort to Donald Trump and the Republican Party.”
This, in turn, caused Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver to accuse the Clinton campaign and her supporters of using “language reserved for traitors to our country.”
Why the hysteria? It doesn’t matter if Sanders continues his candidacy until the last votes are cast in June. What matters is that he quits gracefully, and there should be every expectation that he will, for a simple reason: Sanders is not a fool.
Sanders showed no sign of retreat Tuesday night, even as Clinton extended her lead by winning the night’s biggest prize, Pennsylvania, as well as Maryland, Delaware and Connecticut; Sanders won only Rhode Island. He gave a defiant, hour-long speech in which he said he was “taking on the most powerful political organization in America.” The reference to Clinton drew boos.
Sanders sounded like an extortionist Monday night when he said Clinton, if she won the nomination, would have to earn his supporters’ votes by embracing single-payer health care, free college tuition and a carbon tax – all things Clinton rejected in her (successful) campaign against Sanders. But seconds later, Sanders, prodded by the moderator, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, added a qualifier: “I will do everything in my power to make sure that no Republican gets into the White House in this election cycle.”
That’s the crucial part. Sanders wants to exert maximum leverage to move Clinton toward his populist policies. But he is a practical man, and he certainly doesn’t wish to see a President Trump or President Cruz. This is why there’s no cause for all the fuss over him remaining in the race until he is mathematically eliminated.
Elimination is coming. Even before Clinton padded her lead with Tuesday night’s wins, Sanders needed to win 59 percent of remaining delegates, or 71 percent if you include superdelegates. That isn’t going to happen.
Clinton loyalists worry that Clinton will suffer general-election consequences from Sanders’ suggestions that she is unqualified and in Wall Street’s pocket. And Trump has echoed these attacks and said he’d like Sanders “to keep going.”
Still, this doesn’t qualify as ugly campaigning – particularly compared with a Republican race in which candidates have called each other liars and argued about genital size. Or compare it with the Obama-Clinton standoff of 2008 – a much closer contest. At a May 31, 2008, meeting of the Democratic National Committee, the two campaigns clashed with accusations of cheating. There were hecklers, howls and foul language, and extra security had to be called in to keep order. At the time, Clinton aides, sounding much like this year’s Sanders aides, were threatening that Obama “has work to do” to convince Clinton backers to go his way.
But a week later, Clinton was out, and the party was on a path to unity.
And so it will happen this time. Sanders, when he quits the race, can justifiably declare victory in moving the debate – and Clinton – in his direction on his key issues. His campaign has exceeded all expectations, and he isn’t about to jeopardize his movement by handing the presidency to Trump.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.