Last week, my fellow editor Eli Cain wrote a well-argued and informative article on why Bernie Sanders’ so-called “assist” to Hillary Clinton on her email scandal was an astute political move that will put him and his platform in the national arena, something that until now he has been struggling to do.
I agree that Sanders will gain much more from his email assist than most pundits are allowing him. But let’s face it, in the end, Clinton will still win. Even if Sanders can win the primary, something current polls and political logic suggest is impossible, he has no chance of winning a general election. While many Democrats accept and even applaud Sanders’ self-identification as a liberal socialist, Republicans will not. In the last election, President Obama was often referred to as a socialist, and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.
As excited as voters are, we must recognize that Sanders cannot win. We need a Democrat in the White House again, and Clinton is by far our best shot. Sanders however,is not the reason Clinton won’t win. In fact, he is the reason she will.
Clinton is, above all, an institutionalist. While she recognizes that our political system is badly broken, she still believes the way to fix it is to work within the system, not to tear it down all together. Sanders, to borrow a phrase from Howard Kaplan of The Atlantic, is an “insurrectionist”: he advocates for radical change, positing that our institutions are far past the point of being fixable, and that the only way to move forward is to rebuild the entire system.
While their positions may seem fundamentally opposed, institutionalists need insurrectionists. Sanders has forced Clinton to talk about critical issues that would not otherwise have been discussed or taken seriously — from income inequality to Wall Street to climate change. Sanders has made it impossible for Clinton to hide behind her record or to avoid taking a stand on hard issues. Because of Sanders, she can no longer equivocate as she did on the Keystone Pipeline, waiting far too long before finally coming out against it. Obama, another institutionalist, did not even mention climate change during the 2012 elections because there was no one like Sanders to force the issue.
Sanders has also proved instrumental in pulling Clinton’s policy positions to the left. During the Clinton/Obama debates in 2008, both candidates took more moderate stances, even in a primary where a more radical vision could have helped voter turnout, as Eli mentioned. Now, Sanders has forced Clinton to take-and be accountable for-political positions that are important to her base but that she might otherwise have avoided. Because she is locked in, Clinton is much more likely to create real change should she be elected president.
Because of his insurrectionist stance, Sanders gets people excited. After all, “Tear down the system!” is a much better rallying cry than “Let’s advocate for realistic, internal, incremental change!” Clinton wants to fix our current version of capitalism, Sanders wants to replace it all together. This is why the debate was the most watched Democratic primary debate in history. Millions of people, many of them college students like us, tuned in specifically because of Sanders’ radical agenda. As Eli said, Democrats win when there is high voter turnout. While some of the Sanders-related momentum will fade after the primary, it is also getting people who traditionally have not been involved in politics, particularly younger voters, to get excited about the Democratic Party again. In the long run, this can only help Clinton.
Proving herself as someone who could fix the system from within was clearly the narrative Clinton wanted during the debate. She consistently tied herself to Obama while positioning Sanders as too radical to be electable. Although Sanders certainly gained supporters and got people excited, Clinton accomplished exactly what she wanted during the debate. While Clinton wasn’t as much fun to watch, in the long run, her performance was just as important.
Even though I don’t believe he can win, I believe Democrats, and the country, are fortunate that Sanders entered the race. He’s getting my friends excited about politics, forcing Clinton to take a stand, and bringing issues to the table that I believe are some of the most important of our time. I hope Sanders stays in the race the for the long term and continues to challenge Clinton. I hope he can next turn to foreign policy, something he has not really addressed in his campaign and one of his few stumbling blocks in an otherwise near-flawless debate performance. Sanders makes Clinton stronger. He has made her someone who does not equivocate, is not afraid to criticize the status quo, and who stands up for the ideals the Democratic Party.
Sanders’ real assist is not his comments on the email scandal, but his presence in the race. Clinton is now a much better candidate, and we have Bernie Sanders to thank for that.