June 11, 2016
The Opinion Pages | EDITORIAL
It Was Better to Bern Out
Thursday’s cordial get-together between Bernie Sanders and President Obama (June 9) was a good deal shorter than the eight years that Mr. Sanders’s fervent supporters had hoped he would spend in the Oval Office. Still, it said much about the improbable success of a candidacy that had far more impact than anyone predicted when Mr. Sanders, a 74-year-old Vermont socialist with a Brooklyn accent and no big-money backers, launched his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination with a 10-minute, sparsely attended news conference in the marble glare of the Capitol. There he promised “a movement which says we have got to stand together as a people and say that this Capitol, this beautiful Capitol, our country, belongs to all of us and not the billionaire class.” If in the end he couldn’t succeed without money from the billionaires, he added, he’d at least show “what a sad state of affairs that is for American democracy.”
He didn’t succeed, but he gave a heavily favored establishment candidate with a long list of impressive credentials — outspoken First Lady, United States Senator and Secretary of State — numerous nervous moments. Unkempt and impatient, often angry, Mr. Sanders projected a shambling charisma that caught the spirit of the time. He divined and channeled the lingering pain of a middle class battered by recession and feeling shut out of a recovery in which Wall Street prospered while factory workers, farmers, students and veterans continued to struggle.
He exhorted Americans to use the power of democracy to force change — in contrast to Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, who also promised to elevate the nation’s disaffected but did it mainly by scapegoating the weak.
Mr. Sanders forced Hillary Clinton to pay attention to much of this message. In order to appeal to his followers in the months to come, she will be challenged to generate the same passion, especially among the young, who at rally after rally sat through an hour’s worth of economic lecturing from a wild-haired man they found to be honest and authentic. It may have been the same lecture over and over again, but die-hard supporters trailed him like fans of the Grateful Dead, attentively listening for occasional improvisations in his shouted assaults on the status quo. On Thursday night, at what may prove to be Mr. Sanders’s final rally, some 3,000 people turned up in Washington’s R.F.K. Stadium to cheer his commitment to them.
True to his pledge, Mr. Sanders shunned big money, often beating the monthly totals of Mrs. Clinton — much admired by more than a few billionaires — by raking in tens of millions, 27 bucks at a time. In this age of unbridled campaign spending, that alone is a signal achievement, and may it prove a transformative one.
In the end, however, Mr. Sanders turned out to be an imperfect messenger. Known in the Senate for his allergy to compromise, and for generating few policy initiatives of consequence, Mr. Sanders offered prescriptions that too often consisted of facile calls for “revolution,” for feel-good but economically unsustainable proposals for universal health care and free tuition to public colleges. Like Mrs. Clinton, he gave high priority to fighting climate change, but his proposal for ending all hydraulic fracturing for natural gas would have effectively ended the natural gas boom that has done much to reduce the emissions that contribute to global warming.
And however acute his diagnosis of the 2008 recession, he never fully explained how he would hold Wall Street more accountable for the practices that sank so many homeowners during the recession. These shortcomings were most glaring in the primary campaign in New York, where Mrs. Clinton’s command of policy minutiae helped give her a pivotal win.
After D.C.’s lonely final primary on Tuesday, Mr. Sanders is likely to end his quest for the nomination — but not for what he calls the revolution. Mr. Sanders will seek to merge his message with that of the Democratic Party platform. Along with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who endorsed Mrs. Clinton on Thursday with a powerful attack on Mr. Trump, he remains a forceful and credible voice against the demagogy of a supposed billionaire. He is a politician focused firmly on the needs of everyday Americans who can now count among his achievements an honorable campaign that prodded Democrats to attention.