When he first decided to run for president, Bernie Sanders had a goal in mind: to start a political revolution by getting big money out of politics. If he wants to do it—if Sanders wants to build a lasting movement to fight money’s outsize influence—he has to close one door to open another. The transition from contender to gracious supporter of the nominee isn’t easy for any presidential candidate, but he needs to make it, and soon. We already know Sanders isn’t going to win the Democratic Party’s nomination; Hillary Clinton has amassed more than 92 percent of the delegates needed to secure the nomination, and she’ll easily pick up the rest. So right now, Sanders’ campaign is the walking dead: a zombie. And having worked for John Kerry during the slugfest of the 2004 primaries, I’ve seen up close how much damage this sort of prolonged “zombie” candidacy can inflict on the eventual nominee—and what’s ultimately at stake for the country.
I don’t claim that the dragged-out primary made the difference in November 2004; the race came down to the wire, and big forces—including post-9/11 anxiety and ‘Swift Boat’ smears—loomed large. But in presidential campaigns, the one resource that’s never renewable is time. Zombie candidates can’t win the nomination, but they squander vast amounts of time, and slowly chip away at the prohibitive front-runner. Some of the damage is obvious—the endless series of public dents in the candidate’s reputation; some are subtle, noticeable in ways that perhaps only political operatives can appreciate.
It’s an article of faith in politics that competitive primaries create stronger nominees, and I witnessed this firsthand as well. Kerry grew immensely as a candidate in the course of being tested by rivals from Dick Gephardt to Howard Dean; ditto for Barack Obama in 2008. Healthy competition is a good thing. But continuing to contest a primary after your path to victory disappears is not healthy; it actively hinders your would-be partisan ally.
Before spring began in 2004, it was clear that the process had produced a nominee. But deep into primary season, after a winning streak that knocked out most of our opponents, the campaigns of Dean, Wesley Clark and John Edwards lingered on. Even as they were on life support, their organizations took needlessly hard shots at Kerry at the same time Republicans were inundating the presumptive Democratic nominee with a daily barrage of attacks.
By February 15, 2004, 16 statewide caucuses and primaries had completed, and Senator Edwards had carried only his birth state, South Carolina. That evening, Edwards used a debate in Wisconsin to hammer Senator Kerry on trade and spending. When Kerry, who had won 14 of the first 16 contests, started to talk about taking on George W. Bush in the general election, Edwards pounced. “Not so fast, John Kerry,” he said. “We got a whole group of primaries coming up, and I, for one, intend to fight.” Just north of one week later, President Bush gleefully made his first public speech attacking Kerry and kicked off the general election with biting television ads—all while our campaign was hunkered down fighting in Super Tuesday states that we knew wouldn’t be competitive in the general election.
On Super Tuesday, we won nine of the 10 states—and spent plenty of money to do it. But that’s what you have to do when doomed primary opponents don’t accept reality. All the while, the Bush campaign publicized the Democratic attacks on Kerry; they were overjoyed to receive a liberal version of in-kind contributions to the Republican National Committee.
There was something surreal about knowing that doomed campaigns of fellow Democrats were aggressively peddling opposition research, and that candidates whose fates had been sealed were still publicly labeling their party’s soon-to-be nominee as “the handmaiden of special interests.” We were forced to respond. We were forced to spend limited money on the airwaves, buying time to run ads that would be long forgotten by November—all while an incumbent Republican president stockpiled resources. We were less than four years removed from watching Ralph Nader and disaffected liberals throw an election to George W. Bush, yet these flailing campaigns seemed incapable of resisting the danger of repeating that mistake by damaging their own standard-bearer. Political campaigns can do many things, but they cannot recover lost time.The friendly-fire attacks compounded the difficulty of responding effectively to the parallel attacks made by Republicans. It postponed the work of unifying the Democratic Party and absorbing our rivals’ best operatives into our apparatus. It wasted campaign funds that could’ve been put to better use in the general election. And it stalled our ability to shift the campaign’s schedule and resources into an effort that could win the presidency, instead of one that would merely follow a nominating calendar.
In 2004, continued competition after the match was essentially over didn’t improve our campaign or candidate. It hurt the Democratic Party. Kerry would’ve benefited from a decent interval to recharge his batteries, reset for the fall, and focus the campaign entirely on the Republican attack machine.
Today, with Donald Trump all but guaranteed to be the Republican nominee, the general election electorate is beginning to tune in. At a time when voters could be comparing Trump and Secretary Clinton, the presumptive nominees, they’re instead seeing Clinton take shrapnel not just from the Republicans, but from Sanders.
Sanders has a stake in this. I hope he sees it. Sanders needs to think long and hard about the big cost of criticizing the now-prohibitive Democratic front-runner. He didn’t set out to become Trump’s best ghostwriter for the general election, but that is the role continued attacks on Clinton risk earning him.
Make no mistake: Clinton is a crisper candidate than she was a year ago, a credit to her sparring partner from Vermont. She has upped her game. But at this point, it would be better for the Democratic Party if Clinton could focus on the asymmetric political warfare to come from Trump—which she could do right now if she didn’t have to maintain a second front battling a pesky primary opponent who cannot win.
Without math or momentum on his side, isn’t it better for Sanders to finish the campaign as a happy warrior and build a long-term movement for campaign finance reform? Or would he rather be remembered for damaging the Democratic standard-bearer when we have to crush Trump and win back the Senate in November? The best path for Sanders is also the best path for his newly adopted political party.
Sanders has already changed the political conversation in 2016. Whether wage inequality, middle-class pain, or the distorting role of money in politics, he has made a mark. But if the last wheezes of Sanders’ 2016 efforts echo those of Jerry Brown’s campaign in 1992—i.e., attacking a Clinton personally instead of advocating core issues with a positive agenda—the issues that Sanders cares about will suffer.
What’s the alternative for Sanders? If he is serious about creating lasting political change—and I believe he is—he should start a national movement to drive money out of politics. Sanders could harness his enormous grass-roots fundraising network and the cash it has stockpiled—and can replenish repeatedly—to elect candidates from the White House to the Congress to the state and local levels who are committed to repealing Citizens United.
He could target Senate Republicans in states like New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, inspiring voters there to “feel the Bern” and defeat the incumbents. He could hold those new senators accountable and enlist them in his quest to rid big money from the political system.
He could help Hillary Clinton win big and sweep in a Democratic majority in the Senate. He could become a powerful committee chairman. He could return to the next Senate as one of its most influential players.
And for an Independent socialist from Vermont who started this campaign as an asterisk, that’s a political revolution in itself.