Ask people in Hillary Clinton’s world whether they have a secret weapon to help win over voters under the age of old, and many will offer this answer: Bernie Sanders.
All you had to do was watch Sunday night’s debate in Flint, Michigan, to realize Sanders isn’t nearly ready to quit, although the two candidates’ shoulder-to-shoulder proximity no doubt sparked dreams of the 74-year-old democratic socialist, improbably spritzed by the political fountain of youth, barnstorming with Clinton on college campuses come October. When I mentioned all this to Sanders’ top strategist, Tad Devine, he responded with a big belly laugh— then he went there.
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“Maybe they’re going to put him on the ticket then,” Devine told me during a wide-ranging 45-minute interview for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast. He wasn’t joking, as far as I could tell.
This was a few hours before Devine headed off to Michigan to help his boss prepare for the debate — and he expressed hope that his untamable candidate would keep whacking her on all those paid Goldman Sachs speeches (Bernie obliged). But the veep idea clearly tickled the 60-year-old D.C.-based consultant, a former strategist to the Carter, Mondale, Gore and Kerry campaigns whom Sanders views as his bridge to a party establishment he detests (in a genial, nothing-personal way).
“I’m sure, of course, anyone would,” Devine says when I ask if he could see a scenario where Sanders would actually say yes. They haven’t talked about the possibility, Devine adds, and says Sanders would never, ever consider it “unless you know, it was done in the right and proper way.” That’s a far cry from last year, when Sanders and Co. rebuffed the second-banana suggestion by countering with an offer to give Clinton the vice presidential slot on his ticket.
But it’s been a sobering, though not especially unexpected, couple of back-down-to-earth weeks for his team. The race has reset itself to its Hillary-is-inevitable default after the Vermont senator fought her to a virtual tie in Iowa and humbled Clinton with a 22-point victory in his neighboring state of New Hampshire. Clinton re-established herself as the prohibitive front-runner with her 48-point thrashing of Sanders in South Carolina — and a string of Super Tuesday wins in the South reinforced her iron grip on about 80 percent of black voters.
Sanders won’t be offering his vice presidential services anytime soon — and, more importantly, Devine suggested that his boss wouldn’t heed the counsel of many Clintonites who want him to ease up on the front-runner for the good of a party Sanders only recently joined — nor will he soft-pedal his differences with President Barack Obama, an approach that has likely cost him with black voters. “Bernie has differences with the president and they are substantive,” he said, singling out Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
And he didn’t object when I suggested that Sanders’ entire candidacy be viewed as an expression of progressive dissatisfaction with the pace of progress during the Obama years. “So it’s always going to be difficult because there has to be at least implicit criticism of wage growth during the Obama years, but I think the way Bernie has done it is by first always recognizing the accomplishments of the president — and the vice president, too, is part of the story — and then moving to the differences that he has.”
“I mean, the truth is — and I think this is a fair point — that Hillary Clinton would like to continue on the road that President Obama has laid out, build on … Obamacare is a good example of that,” he added, echoing the third-Obama-term argument Republicans have been making.
Devine, a 6-foot 3-inch former standout high school and college shooting guard, has the affable, tousle-haired bluff of a Tip O’Neill kiss-the-Blarney-Stone Boston clubhouse pol. There’s an overlay of preppy in the form of pullovers and tortoise-shell frames (he went to Brown), but in his heart he’s a townie from Providence, a regional second city (Devine was born in the projects to a legally blind father who somehow held down a steady job as a sidewalk inspector). He’s got a bit of the misfit’s chip on his shoulder. This explains Devine’s connection to Sanders, who was born in the bialy-est part of Brooklyn, a table-flat expanse of redbrick apartment houses brimming with Jewish bus drivers, not bankers.
What’s refreshing about talking with Devine is his candor about his candidate’s real chances of winning at this point (“It’s going to be tough,” is his favorite expression) and Sanders’ propensity to brush him off when he makes an unpalatable suggestion. One such example, according to Devine, was the campaign’s most successful attack on the former secretary of state — the revelation she made $600,000-plus from speeches to the hated Goldman Sachs.
“Oh, you know, before the first debate in October we talked about it and he was … reluctant to introduce an issue like that,” Devine recalls. “It’s just so negative, and he wanted to talk about his message and his issues, and that was his posture. Then, just before Christmas, the Department of Justice announced a $5 billion settlement with the big banks, with no criminal prosecutions, and Sanders started raging. “I think he just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to talk about this right now,’ and he did.”
The anecdote sounded a little too good to be true — Bernie as the reluctant attacker — but it fits with Sanders’ (in)famous unwillingness to hit Clinton on the email scandal around that time. And Devine concedes that once Sanders started talking about it, everybody realized how effective it was as a political tactical warhead.
But it hasn’t been enough to stop Clinton, not nearly enough, and the delegate math of the next six weeks does not add up to a Sanders nomination. The big blow, Devine says, was Sanders’ 5-percentage-point loss in the Nevada caucuses last month that Devine and Co. view as a gut punch and game changer. The campaign, flush with online cash but lacking an established ground operation to spend it on, outspent Clinton to no effect. He blames himself for the loss, in part for not finding a just-right message to get out 20,000 more voters— and he acknowledges that Nevada led to a wholesale strategic reassessment, the abandonment of a quick-knockout strategy and the adoption of a far less certain approach that boils down to raising heaps of online cash, fighting state by state and hoping for a big break.
And while other Sanders officials say they intend to fight through the biggest contest of them all, California in June, Devine suggested that the campaign might reassess its position a little sooner — especially if Sanders loses Michigan on Tuesday, as polls suggest he will.
“We’re going to try to beat her in pledged delegates … but it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be tough,” he tells me when I ask him how long this thing will last. “Now, you know, we’re not going to know the answer to that, really, until, I’d say, maybe the middle of April, OK? Not the middle of March. You know, we’ll see where we are then, to make that decision.”
Devine is as concerned as anybody by Sanders’ failure to connect with African-American voters, but he doesn’t give much ground when I press him on the cause: the Clintons’ three decades of campaigning in the South. “They’re very strong,” he says. “And we’ve got this guy from Vermont who, you know, they’ve been introduced to as a democratic socialist, who they’ve never seen before. … It’s just going to be a while before we make those connections.”
But a big factor, in the eyes of black voters, is Sanders’ unwillingness to paper over his differences with Obama — daylight Clinton’s team has been all too happy to exploit. In controversial remarks delivered in an interview with BET on the eve of the South Carolina primary, Sanders openly mocked Clinton’s embrace of Obama, saying she was just doing it to win over African-Americans. In Flint, Sanders — for the first time (at Devine’s request, according to another Sanders staffer) opened up about his childhood experiences as a Jew growing up among Holocaust survivors and talked about being arrested as a college student in Chicago at an anti-racism protest in the 1960s.
Sanders’ greatest asset as a candidate — and it’s no coincidence that Devine’s his guy — is telling stories about other people — and his gruff instructions to Devine at the start of the campaign was to “get out of your box” when it came to making ads. The result has been a string of moving, evocative spots that even Republicans acknowledge as inspirational. The best known — an ad released during the Iowa campaign juxtaposing images of middle America against the Simon and Garfunkel song “America” (“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together…”) — is effective precisely because it keeps Sanders out of the frame until the last possible second.
That wasn’t an accident. The idea of using a Simon and Garfunkel song occurred to Devine’s partner Mark Longabaugh, who tried, unsuccessfully, to mate a shot of the Statue of Liberty to Simon’s “American Tune.” Eventually, they settled on the simpler, quieter “America” — and Sanders himself secured the songwriter’s blessing over lunch a few days later. But the key moment came when the candidate’s wife Jane watched an early cut and decided that her husband was getting in the way of his own people-first campaign.
“Jane said, ‘Gee, I really love this, but when Bernie comes in it seems — you know, it loses a lot of altitude,’” Devine recalls with a laugh.
Devine’s favorite ad is the latest one: a five-minute documentary about a Mexican immigrant mother picking tomatoes at slave wages to support her two kids. It’s due to run nationwide on Univision this Thursday, and Devine sees it as a declaration that transcends the primary, a statement about the Democratic Party’s vision as a welcoming and inclusive alternative to Trump Republicanism.
When I mention that the image I like best shows a tattered American flag flapping over the trailers of a battered migrant camp in Florida, he loses his composure for an angry instant.
“They don’t own the American flag, OK, these guys?” Devine says of Republicans. “They can put it on their label and they could do what they want on it. This is our country, OK? … We’re not giving America to the Republicans.”