In my role as a historian of presidents and the presidency, I find myself in a every interesting position during election years. Media outlets and audiences want me to do two very different (if related) things: offer historical perspective (“Has this ever happened before? What happened then?”) and political prediction (“What will happen next?”). The former task is fairly straightforward, although there are a lot of amateur presidential historians out there (and, to be honest, it doesn’t take much to be a superficially compelling talking head or authority).
The latter function is a bit more challenging. Predictions, after all, no matter how well grounded in past patterns, are subject to change, and never is this more evident when one has to write in anticipation of an event where the outcome may change things or somrthing might happen to render one’s prediction pointless. We’ve seen that a lot this election year.
We’ve seen Donald J. Trump seize the Republican nomination despite all sorts of claims that he would not do so (although early on I suggested that the discussion about the Republican establishment was problematic: it suggested there was such an establishment, that it agreed on certain things, and it had a candidate who could take Trump on and win). We’ve weathered talk of a contested/brokered convention. It’s been interesting to see the rise and levelling off of Bernie Sanders, and process that as much as anything suggested some of the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. Moreover, in a process where so many rules have been broken and where conventional wisdom has suffered some big hits, it behooves the historian to tread carefully, qualifying answers in the face of pressure to say something new and sensational (although I must admit that saying the obvious and even banal in an authoritative manner is also part of the job).
Let me give one such example. Several months ago it looked as if both Trump and Sanders might find themselves stymied by the nomination process. Both candidates complained about the rules and their respective party establishments. That much was obvious. After all, these men were both outsiders, and one could expect as much. But was there anything else to say? Not unless one wanted to engage in somewhat rather wild speculation … that perhaps Trump and Sanders ought to make common cause against a system that didn’t work and that prevented the sort of insurgent candidacies that they were pursuing from getting very far. Perhaps particular differences needed to be set aside in light of this common assumption that government simply wasn’t working. That’s right … didn’t it make some odd sort of sense for Trump and Sanders to unite, at least in attacking the system?
A wild idea? Of course. I noted at the time that to make it was quite risky (it was highly unlikely that this would occur), but, even offered as “a modest proposal” in Swiftian style, it would make a splash. All it would take would be for Trump to fall short in New York and the door would open to advancing such a radical proposal. Even mockery of it would be useful in initiating a discussion about the inability of the present system to get things done and the growing impatience with such a stalemate. That Trump made several comments about Sanders’s struggles and criticisms in rather supportive and understanding fashion suggested that this was not a completely bizarre idea, although no one in their right mind would think of a Trump-Sanders ticket.
But Trump won New York. So did Clinton. It did not take long for the Republican field to falter, then fold, while Sanders could never quite get over that setback.
I don’t think the Trump story is very interesting lately. Amusing, yes, but not interesting. Watching prominent Republicans squirm as they reconcile their support for the presumptive nominee with their increasing horror at what he says (especially on that most presidential of mediums, Twitter) is sure to make one’s day. But the process of foes becoming supporters and endorsers if not friends is old hat. It just may be more fun this time around.
That left the drama of Bernie Sanders’s struggle to continue his fight, the candidate growing ever more shrill and nasty as his chances continued to evaporate. What would Bernie do? What could he do? And what could I say about it?
It was with those thoughts in mind that I set down the following thoughts last Saturday:
The Democratic primary season came to an end this week with voters in California and New Jersey choosing once more between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The actual results don’t matter all that much, except in the eyes of reporters who cover the primary season as if it was a horse race (it’s more like a marathon). Clinton emerged from the primaries with a majority of the delegates chosen through that process pledged to support her: the rest is interpretation of the political optics offered by the results.
For Sanders, the challenge is simple. Having protested the rules through which Democrats choose their presidential candidate—notably the provision for superdelegates who are free to make their own choice as to whom to support—he now finds himself dependent upon that very process in order to secure the nomination of a party he has only recently joined. He must win them over to prevail. Moreover, having shared with voters his impatience with discussions of Clinton’s email server while she was secretary of state, Sanders must now rely on that continuing controversy as Exhibit A in making the case that he is more electable than his rival in the general election against Republican Donald J. Trump.
Sanders’s supporters have waxed eloquent about the unfairness of the superdelegate system, which is fulfilling the function it was designed to perform: making sure party leaders had a disproportionate role in selecting the party’s presidential nominee as a way to deflect threats from outsiders just like Sanders. The Vermont senator has basked in playing the role of the anti-establishment outsider whose outspokenness challenges all the rules, so he cannot be surprised by what’s happened. Instead, he must now rely upon persuading superdelegates to support him and thus to overcome Clinton’s margin of pledged delegates selected through primaries and caucuses—the people’s choice, if you will—and to be the choice of the party elite, not exactly where an outsider should want to be.
Sanders knows that his best chance to win superdelegates’ support rests with his claim that he’s more electable than Clinton. But what makes him more electable? For all the passion involved in his candidacy and his message, it is doubtful that a majority of voters in a general election would embrace a self-described Democratic socialist. Instead, he must rely upon exploiting Clinton’s Achilles heel: her repeated fumbling responses to stories of scandalous and corrupt behavior, primarily her handling of e-mail while she was secretary of state. Such controversies raise questions about her integrity and fitness for office. Nor is Sanders alone in hoping for new revelations or more mismanaged damage control: Trump’s chances this fall depend on whether independent voters see him as the lesser of two evils.
Sanders’s chances for victory depend on his embracing a system he once attacked and hoping it will react to the continued prominence of a scandal he once set aside. It has been that kind of year.
As of last weekend, that was a reasonable analysis of Sanders’s dwindling chances. He would have to challenge his own brand, so to speak, if he wanted to win. Only if bad things happened to Clinton did he really stand a chance.
Now, for such a piece to have any influence or impact, it would have to appear in print this week … and only if certain things happened. But it’s reasonable to assume that circumstances might have made this an interesting analysis … depending on what happened next. So file this under if/then analysis.
Then came Monday evening. I was watching the Stanley Cup Final when a news crawl on NBC notified me (and, I assume, lots of other hockey fans) that several news organizations had concluded that Clinton had secured the support of a majority of all the delegates. Now she, too, was a “presumptive nominee.”
Mind you, the primary contests on Tuesday would have secured a majority of delegates for Clinton … she was in position to proclaim on Tuesday what news organizations declared on Monday evening. But the Monday annoucement sparked all sorts of discussion (and recriminations), making Tuesday anticlimatic. Fair enough. But, almost in anticipation of what might happen next, Democratic leaders, led by Barack Obama, decided to transform triumph into coronation, complete with sympathy for the loser’s good fight.
You fought the good fight, Bernie, but now it’s time to step aside. We can do this nicely, with smiles, handshakes, and congratulations all around … or, if you don’t get the message, it could get nasty. Capisce?
That strategy appears to have worked. Today, as the Obama administration rolled out the president’s powerful endorsement of his former secretary of state, party leaders met with the runner-up and consoled him while paying tribute to his campaign. At this writing Sanders seems placated, even happy, and his pledge to keep up the fight all the way to Philadelphia has lost much of its edge. What looked at one point to be a bitter fight appears now to be a vibrant and lively discussion between people who agree on fundamentals (note I said appears). Image and impression and perception are everything.
Under such circumstances it would be foolish indeed for Sanders to pursue what I believed last Saturday was his last chance to secure the nomination. Nor would it make any sense now to offer last Saturday’s take as meaningful commentary on the situation as we see it today. In sort, those words go away now, consigned to a discussion of what-ifs that are characteristic of discussions political as well as historical.
That is, unless things change.
Sometimes they do.