Time for Bernie Sanders to Get in Line

Should he drop out? No. But if he wants to remain a major progressive leader in a Clinton presidency, it’s time to ratchet back his attacks on the presumptive nominee.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Does Super Tuesday change anything on the Democratic side? Bernie Sanders got enough wins, and delegates, to keep at it. So that won’t change—and I want to say clearly that it should not change. But this is what should change: From here on in, Sanders ought to lay off the attacks on Hillary Clinton, the Goldman Sachs speeches and all the rest. Eventually, he’s going to lose. She’s going to win. He can do it in a way that burnishes his standing in the party he’s decided to be a member of and that makes him a pivotally powerful senator during a potential Clinton presidency. Or he can do it in a way that damages her reputation and ultimately his own.

Most of the individual results, for all the hype, don’t really mean that much. Sanders won Vermont. Given. Sanders won Minnesota and Colorado, which are both important states, but they’re weird caucuses. Oklahoma was an interesting win, but the black percentage of the vote is small there compared to Deep South states, and anyway it’s as red as a state gets. Wesley Clark won Oklahoma in 2004.

A number of Clinton’s wins don’t really matter much either, again, because they’re red general election states. Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas; who cares how much she won by? Georgia is a slightly different story, because Georgia is inching its way toward purple-dom, and she can at least make Donald Trump spend money there this fall.

But two Clinton wins matter. First, Massachusetts matters some, because it’s New England. It’s a very different state from Vermont, of course; it’s a machine Democratic state. But it’s one Sanders was really hoping for.

But the big one is Virginia. It’s an indisputably important November state, one that if the Democrat wins, she or he probably will not lose the election. The kind of state where a candidate needs to be able to make the case: “I can carry this state.” And she didn’t merely win Virginia. She just smothered him there, 65 to 35 percent.

Here are the county and city results. She won 2-to-1 in Alexandria city. Better than 2-to-1 in Arlington County. Nearly 2-to-1 in Fairfax and Prince William counties. In Loudon County, 59-41. In Richmond city, 60-40. As far as I can see, the only place where Sanders beat her where there was any critical mass of votes was in Charlottesville, the home of UVA.

In other words, in all the counties and cities a Democrat needs to carry to win the state in November, she rolled, put together the kind of coalition that can win in November. And turnout numbers were competitive. More Democrats than Republicans voted in Fairfax, and nearly as many in Loudon, despite the fact that the Republican race was much more competitive.

It’s Virginia where the handwriting of where this is headed was splashed on the wall. Sanders had little appeal beyond the college campus. Now, of course he’ll still win states. This Saturday, in fact, he’ll probably take two out of three—he should win caucuses in Kansas and Nebraska, while Clinton will take the primary in Louisiana. Then on Sunday, he may win the Maine caucuses. Tuesday, March 8, brings Michigan and Mississippi. Those ought to be Clinton wins.

And then on March 15, unless something weird happens, the hammer comes down. Florida, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, and Missouri. Big, delegate-rich states, every one of them, and every one of them potentially winnable in November (yes, even Missouri, which Barack Obama lost only by a whisker in 2008, although the circumstances would have to be just right). It’s nearly impossible to see Sanders winning any one of those states. I remember when Bill Clinton basically sealed the deal in 1992. It was in Illinois, on March 17, in the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton, to be precise. I remember because I was there. If I were Clinton, I’d want to be back at the Palmer House on March 15, for symbolism purposes.

Sanders should keep running. He has the money, so why not? He draws the crowds. And his presence keeps Clinton on her toes, keeps her from sail-trimming and tacking back to the center too early. So he should stay in as long as he wants to stay and keep up the pressure on the issues.

But it’s time to start pulling back on the food fight. Sanders got into this race thinking: I’m not gonna win, but I’m gonna push this party to the populist-left and put issues on the table that I want to see put on the table. You could tell this way back when he said “enough with the damn emails.” Then he came oh-so-close in Iowa and rolled in New Hampshire, and that’s when he started to think he might actually win this thing—to the astonishing extent that he reportedly didn’t even write a concession speech in Nevada.

Now he ought to have landed back on Earth. There’s no point in trying to attack Clinton at this point. There is a point in amassing delegates, securing his position as the leader (or the co-leader, with Elizabeth Warren) of the left-populist, keep-her-honest wing of the Democratic Party. That’s a really important role. A guy who got 36 percent of Democrats in Fairfax County, Virginia isn’t going to be president. But he can be important if he decides he wants to be.