At this point, the best thing Bernie Sanders’s supporters can probably do for his reputation is to vote against him in the remaining primaries and caucuses.
Hillary Clinton long ago wrapped up the nomination. Tuesday’s results — her narrow victory in Kentucky and his win by about 10 percentage points in Oregon — doesn’t change anything: It’s over. If you include super-delegates, Clinton is only about 100 delegates away from clinching, and with Democratic proportional allocation she is basically guaranteed to get there.
Yet the closer Clinton gets to her official victory, the more Sanders and his campaign act as if the nomination was unfairly stolen from him — that somehow the doors of the party have been unfairly closed against his followers. This culminated in an ugly scene in Nevada last weekend, with Sanders supporters threatening Democratic Party officials there.
The result? Liberals have turned on Sanders, urging him to get out of the race now or, at least, to change his tone. Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall says Sanders is “lying to [his] supporters.” At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum calls him “very, very bitter.” The New York Times’s Paul Krugman says Sanders “has a problem ... in facing reality” and calls his campaign a “terrible mess.”
As Ed Kilgore details in New York magazine, claims that the nomination was stolen or rigged or whatever are complete bunk. Some longtime rules worked against Sanders. He did worse in states with closed primaries (restricting voting to only registered Democrats). But the systems in other states worked for him. He cleaned up in the caucuses.
The biggest rule-based effect has probably just been that the Democrats’ proportional representation system has created an illusion of a tight battle. The truth is that Hillary Clinton has won more states. She won bigger states. She won, overall, by bigger margins, with the exception of a handful of caucuses, most of which were in small states. Overall, she has won about 57 percent of the vote, beating Sanders by some 14 percentage points.
That’s a blowout. And, for what it’s worth, it matches Clinton’s national polling lead over Sanders.
Sanders has said he would support Clinton against Donald Trump in a general-election battle, and there’s no reason to doubt his word. Nor is a national party convention as easy to disrupt as a state gathering. Sure, Sanders supporters could hold demonstrations and grant interviews to a media that is always looking for controversy, but his fans are more likely to look like sore losers than anything else. Meanwhile, almost all rank-and-file liberals — who, remember, have always liked Clinton even as many of them have voted for Sanders — will line up behind the nominee and against Trump. This is true even if a handful of “Bernie or bust” die-hards dissent.
But the Vermont senator’s truculence could have serious effects on his movement and on his own ability to wield influence after the campaign. His ability to excite large crowds and win plenty of votes could make him a more formidable presence in the Senate than he has been. But if he behaves irresponsibly, he’ll forfeit that influence.
This is why at this point the best thing for Sanders may be that he loses solidly in California and New Jersey on June 7, making it clear to his followers -- and perhaps to the candidate himself -- that he lost the nomination fair and square. Yes, he’ll fall short even if he wins each remaining contest, but it won’t be nearly as obvious that he was solidly beaten.
And apparently being solidly beaten is what it’s going to take for Sanders to convert his impressive but losing campaign into a positive force for his ideas in the future.