Bernie Sanders and the vanity of old men

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Few things open quite so broad a path to folly as the vanity of old men.

Bernie Sanders needs to weigh that existential reality, along with the political ones, as he considers how to proceed from his decisive loss to Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s New York primary. There will be a batch of primaries next week—including key states like Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maryland—and, on June 7, another great prize in the suddenly relevant California contest. His prospects of elbowing Clinton aside and winning the Democrats’ nomination, however, now seem somewhere the other side of remote.

Clinton’s camp is being careful not to suggest that Sanders ought to withdraw, which would be disrespectful and improper.  The Vermont socialist has mounted an entirely credible national campaign, raised large amounts of money from small donors and, most important, a lot of people have voted for him. Still more will between now and June 7. Sanders and his supporters deserve to be heard at the convention, and the candidate deserves his party’s thanks for pushing their primary cycle in a far more progressive direction than anyone anticipated.

For Sanders, who has maintained an unfashionable set of political convictions from his young manhood—views that have made him a maverick and outsider throughout his legislative career, there must be a sense of vindication. It would be hard in his position not to feel that the country—or at least, a significant segment of it—has finally caught up with the principles to which he always has clung.

It might also be bittersweet, after all this effort, to contemplate how close he has come to having the White House as the bully pulpit from which to preach, and—perhaps—to see at least some of the good things for which he has so stubbornly argued actually come to pass. Economic justice, universal single-payer health care, free education, a society of more equal opportunity are, in fact, things worth the fight.

They will not be realized in Sanders’ lifetime, however—nor even win over the majority of lawmakers within his own party. For what it’s worth, I wish they would, but this country is too deeply divided in too many substantive ways to summon the national will that would be required for that sort of humane reform.

Sanders’ career and this campaign have helped keep them alive as things to which the nation can aspire and, realistically, that’s something he needs to accept. That is the sum of his accomplishment. Only vanity can prevent him from seeing that. If he now elects, as some of his advisors seem to be urging, to wage a kind of scorched earth campaign to the convention, vanity will have become folly—and his own cause will be set back in ways too awful to contemplate.

Sanders’ choice actually is a stark one: He can wage a principled campaign from here on out and help to bring the party—particularly its young voters and sympathetic independents—together at the convention. Alternatively, he can yield to a wounded vanity and increase the risk of a Trump or Cruz presidency.

Desperate to win in New York, Sanders’ anti-Clinton rhetoric took on a lacerating new tone. It was evident in his fiery address to thousands of supporters at the Brooklyn Naval Yard Sunday, when the senator—his voice dripping with contempt—mocked Clinton for her refusal to release the full text to speeches she gave to the Goldman Sachs partners after leaving the State Department.

Sanders noted that she received $225,000 per speech and then rhetorically inquired, “Now, if you give a speech for $225,000, it must be a pretty damn good speech, must be a brilliant and insightful speech analyzing all of the world’s problems, must be a speech written in Shakespearean prose. And that is why I believe Secretary Clinton should share that speech with all of us.”

(Just for the record, that sort of speaking fee is about standard for former senior cabinet or White House officials, speaking to large private enterprises. It’s an obscene amount, but it’s the going rate, and Clinton is hardly the only former public official to charge it.)

A few days earlier, speaking in Philadelphia, Sanders attacked Clinton’s qualifications for the chief executive’s office. “I don’t believe,” he said, “that she is qualified if she is, if she is, through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds. I don’t think you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC.

“I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq,” Sanders continued. “I don’t think you are qualified if you’ve supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement, which has cost us millions of decent-paying jobs. I don’t think you are qualified if you supported the Panama free trade agreement, something I very strongly opposed and which, as all of you know, has allowed corporations and wealthy people all over the world to avoid paying their taxes to their countries.”

The shift in Sanders’ line of attack is crucial. He began by alleging that Clinton was mistaken in her acquiescence to the Iraq War and free trade agreements. As the competition grew more heated, he began to allege—as he did in those addresses—that the former Secretary of State was not simply wrong on the issues, but wrong because she is corrupt.

Sanders has denounced the entire post-Citizens United system of campaign finance as corrupt. It would be more precise—and correct—to say that it’s a system that almost inevitably will be corrupting.  There’s an immense difference between making that point and alleging that Clinton is personally on the take. It’s particularly unfair to tax her with being excessively close to the financial industry, when she served as senator from New York, where Wall Street is the signature industry.

Sanders supports the gun lobby because fire arms ownership is a make-or-break issue in a generally rural hunting state. Just last week, he raised fundamental reservations about the right of the Newtown Connecticut parents to sue the manufacturer of the guns used to murder 20 school children. Some of us find that appalling, but I, for one, do not begrudge him the right to do what it takes to win reelection.

Sanders’ reckless attacks on Clinton’s integrity may already have had an effect among the independent voters, with whom he has a particularly strong following and who are crucial in a national election. Last week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News found that, since January, the percentage of independents with a negative view of Clinton increased from 54% to 62%. The percentage of independents with a favorable view of the former First Lady feel from 35% to just 20%.

New York was the state thus far contested that most resembles the country as a whole, and when Tuesday’s results are broken down, they’re instructive. Sanders likes to style his quest for the presidential nomination “a movement” rather than simply a campaign.  His movement, so far, is comprised mainly of young people and independents. He’s failed to win over important minority constituencies within the Democratic Party, like African Americans and Latinos.  He failed again in New York in that regard.

Similarly, since 1928, no presidential candidate has won the popular vote without carrying Catholics. In New York, according to the exit polls, Clinton won the Catholic vote 60% to 40%. She even carried a decisive majority of the Jewish vote and did particularly well against Sanders in overwhelmingly Orthodox neighborhoods, like Borough Park (61%). In the 10th congressional district, the nation’s largest Jewish district, she won by an overwhelming 66%-34% margin.

The Vermont senator can go on inflicting rhetorical damage on Clinton, but it won’t win him the nomination. His choice actually is a stark one: He can wage a principled campaign from here on out and help to bring the party—particularly its young voters and sympathetic independents—together at the convention. Alternatively, he can yield to a wounded vanity and increase the risk of a Trump or Cruz presidency.

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