Can Sanders’s Endorsement Heal the Democratic Party’s Civil War Over Foreign Policy?
The Vermont senator used a drawn-out primary to attack Clinton’s judgement on national security and international trade, so party unity may prove elusive.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finally endorsed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, bringing an end to a long and bitter primary fight. The question now is whether the months Sanders spent attacking Clinton’s judgement on foreign policy and trade will keep the party from closing ranks to defeat Donald Trump.
Organizers of the joint rally in New Hampshire were obviously eager to show a unified front: Sanders emerged with Clinton to Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own,” they stood before a banner reading “stronger together,” and the crowd chanted “U-ni-ty” as the senator began. But underscoring the subtle constraints of his own prior critiques, Sanders started by highlighting the number of votes and delegates he won, before congratulating Clinton on her victory.
Still, he said, “I have come here today not to talk about the past but to focus on the future,” standing next to Clinton, who nodded and clapped, mostly straight-lipped, throughout his speech. “That future will be shaped more by what happens on Nov. 8 at voting booths across the nation than by any other event in the world.”
Ahead of the New Hampshire rally, Sanders had said he would work with Clinton and do everything he could to defeat Trump — save bowing out of a race he had clearly and irreversibly lost weeks ago. The self-described socialist said he owed the 13 million who voted for him a vigorous policy fight, and as recently as last week his campaign criticized Clinton surrogates for refusing to insert language into the party’s platform draft that would explicitly call for rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
But after forcing final concessions in the platform at the Democratic National Committee’s final meeting this past weekend — achieving the farthest-reaching language yet on the politically fraught issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, though not the outright rejection of TPP that he sought — Sanders at last agreed to throw his support behind the former secretary of state.
Still, Sanders largely focused in his speech not on Clinton’s candidacy or the dangers posed by Trump, but the issues of economic inequality that motivated his upstart campaign.
“It’s no secret that Secretary Clinton and I disagree on a number of issues … that’s what democracy is about,” Sanders said Tuesday. But he noted, “There’s been a significant coming together … we produced by far the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.”
With obvious relief, Clinton, speaking after Sanders, added, “I can’t tell you how much more enjoyable this election is going to be now that we are on the same side.”
At one point in a wide-ranging speech, she addressed her now sole opponent directly, saying with a laugh, “Sorry Donald, if you’re watching.”
But he obviously has been, and closely. With Sanders’s endorsement coming just days ahead of the Republican convention in Cleveland and the Democrats’ own in Philadelphia the week after, it may be too late for the senator to undo the damage done to Clinton for her general election face off with Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee.
By holding on so long, Sanders prevented Clinton from training her full fire on Trump, who was able to go on the offensive weeks ago after emerging as the last man standing from the crowded Republican primary.
And while Sanders managed to translate his “Feel the Bern” momentum into greater influence than likely even he expected, others saw him wielding a wedge between Clinton and the younger, more liberal voters with whom she has struggled throughout the election and whose enthusiasm she will need against Trump, a brand in and of himself.
Lastly, it remains unclear how Sanders will serve as an attack dog against Trump, given the New York businessman has for weeks been using the Vermont senator’s own attack lines to undermine the secretary of state’s far deeper national security experience and argue his anti-establishment, populist-anger-fueled campaign is a better fit for Sanders supporters.
Granted, Clinton may feel that with Sanders’s endorsement, she no longer needs, or wants, him to play a significant role. The Vermont senator is also something of a polarizing figure among broader swaths of voters, including the more moderate or independent she’ll now be pursuing in earnest.
But as Clinton continues to hammer Trump as unqualified to be commander in chief, the Republican’s campaign’s strategy ahead of the Tuesday event underscores her challenge in a post-Sanders campaign. “Top Five Reasons Sanders Supporters Will Never Be Excited About Hillary Clinton,” the Trump campaign sent out, featuring “Sanders Stance On Trade Stands In Stark Contrast To The Radical, Corporate Globalist Agenda That Clinton Represents As She Refuses To Disavow TPP” and “While Clinton Was Eager To Intervene In Iraq And Libya, Sanders Insisted Upon Diplomacy Instead Of A Costly Invasion And War.”
But the fiercely independent Sanders blasted the Manhattan real-estate magnate in his own trademark Brooklyn brogue, offering a potential hint of what’s to come.
“This election must be about bringing our people together, not dividing us up,” he said. “While Donald Trump is busy insulting Mexicans and Muslims and women and African Americans and our veterans, Hillary Clinton understands that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths.”
Prompting laughter from Clinton, Sanders noted he has known Clinton for a quarter of a century, and predicted she will make “an outstanding president.”
“I intend to be in every corner of this country to make certain that happens,” he added.
Photo credit: Darren McCollester / Stringer