The walls are crumbling, and Bernie Sanders knows it.
Barack Obama made his support for Hillary Clinton official on Thursday. So did Vice President Joe Biden and liberal hero Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The major political groups surrounding Sanders are saying it’s time to unify.
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The campaign is rapidly winding down around Sanders, the Senate gadfly-turned-unlikely revolutionary who outperformed everyone’s expectations, and he finally began to acknowledge it Thursday.
“We need real change in this country. And what people also understand is that no president, not Bernie Sanders, not anybody else, can do it alone,” he told roughly 3,000 supporters gathered near Washington’s RFK stadium on a hot evening, returning to his original stump speech about billionaires, the “corrupt campaign finance system,” and “the broken criminal justice system” without once mentioning Clinton or the Democratic Party’s convention.
“A little bit over a year ago we began this campaign. What the punditry thought is the campaign would not go very far. Well, here we are in mid-June and we’re still standing.”
The signals that he now accepts the fact that he won’t be the party’s nominee were unmistakable.
The courtship letters his campaign had planned to send superdelegates have been put on hold. His go-to argument — that he polls better against Donald Trump than Clinton — has been scrubbed from his public statements. There are mass staff departures, and his digital firm set up a new site to help laid off staffers find their next gig.
Even his Senate relationship rebuilding effort has begun.
It’s a swift denouement for a campaign that had been bleeding money and staff for weeks, hastened by the surprising margin of Sanders’ loss in California on Tuesday night — which his aides hadn’t anticipated partly because they stopped polling in California days earlier due to the cost.
He stepped up to the D.C. stage fending off a heckler after several days of tacit messages from party leaders that his time had come. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had endorsed Clinton on Wednesday. Environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, the party’s largest individual donor in the last cycle, backed her shortly after. Martin O’Malley, the third-place finisher in 2016’s Democratic race, followed suit Thursday..
A few minutes into Sanders’ Thursday night speech, CNN switched from carrying him live to showing Warren castigating Trump, relegating Sanders to the bottom corner of the screen.
Sanders did get the Obama meeting he had requested on Thursday morning, but it came two days after the president had already taped his endorsement of Clinton, posted to her website shortly after the Vermont senator left the White House premises.
Sanders has long been careful not to actively campaign against Obama’s record when it comes to issues where they disagree, but with news that Obama will join Clinton on the trail in Wisconsin next week, the senator’s now faced with the reality that he would actively be running against the president’s endorsed candidate if he were to stay in the race past Washington, D.C.’s Tuesday primary.
Taking to the halls of the Senate after his White House meeting, Sanders was received warmly even by leaders who support Clinton and who’ve urged him to exit the race.
“I’m in a good place with Bernie,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said of a Thursday meeting with Sanders, who’s been invited to address the Senate Democrats next Tuesday — now widely thought to be the final day of his campaign. “Bernie’s going to be very good for the party.”
“Senator Sanders is a constructive person. He knows how important it is to win this election and beat Donald Trump, and I have every bit of faith that we are going to be working together with Senator Sanders to achieve that goal and take back the Senate,” said New York’s Chuck Schumer, the expected next leader of the Senate Democrats and an ardent Clinton supporter who nonetheless spoke with Sanders throughout the race. “He’s accomplished a great deal in terms of forcing, requiring, making sure that America focuses on the fact that it’s harder to stay in the middle class and get to the middle class.”
It was a somewhat less bombastic Sanders who walked the marble floors, especially after Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, his first Senate and House endorsers, suggested to the Washington Post on Thursday that his time had come.
Sanders had personally called Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, his longtime liberal cooperator, on Wednesday night to smooth things over after POLITICO reported Tuesday that he was so upset with Brown’s early Clinton endorsement that he would consider axing him from the presumptive nominee’s vice presidential list if consulted.
More than just a friendly gesture, the move was widely read by Democrats as an acknowledgment from Sanders that he’ll soon return to Capitol Hill, and that he’ll need his allies to help ensure a soft landing.
But the Brown call wasn’t the only sign of Sanders’ coda: the senator writes his own speeches by hand before asking an aide to type them up, and he emerged from the White House on Thursday morning with a printed sheet of remarks that he’d already prepared. He declared his intention to ensure Donald Trump doesn’t become president, while pledging to stay in the race through Tuesday, thus fulfilling his promise to let every American vote.
Sanders now says he’s focused on the D.C. primary, for which his campaign did no polling. Competing there is an extremely cheap proposition given its small geographical size and the campaign’s decision not to run ads there. He advocating for granting D.C. statehood — a goal Clinton shares, which means he won’t be directly campaigning against her.
For his remaining staff, the wind-down has been a quick — if not unexpected — shift. His final address in California had a valedictory feel, and a handful of mid-level aides were drinking backstage during the proceedings. They were joined by senior staffers at the Sheraton Universal City bar until late that evening, well aware — as aides started posting goodbye notes on Facebook — that the already small campaign would be shrinking to a skeleton crew, composed mostly of the political and advance teams.
Revolution Messaging, the firm running Sanders’ digital operations, rolled out a new site designed to connect out-of-work progressives with new jobs while Sanders and his team were flying back East on Wednesday.
Several of the campaign’s top tech staffers say they’re still on payroll, but a number of those aides who were integral to building his online fundraising juggernaut, voter micro targeting, and online videos acknowledged that they’re looking past the convention, including at opportunities to help Clinton defeat Trump.
Sanders’ data and analytics vendor, for example, has been in talks with the For Our Future super PAC, a group backed by Steyer and four labor organizations — including the AFL-CIO — that plans to focus on turning out Democratic voters for Clinton in key battleground states.
“We’ll all be helping the Hillary team in the general election in one capacity or another,” said Ken Strasma, the CEO of Haystaq DNA.
Sanders’ tech team is already expressing interest in working on Clinton’s behalf to drum up enthusiasm among young voters — a critical demographic for Democrats that Sanders dominated and Clinton struggled with during the primaries.
“Getting a bunch of kids stoked on the process is very important to ensure a Trump presidency is not possible,” said Arun Chaudhary, the Sanders videographer who joined the senator’s team at the White House on Thursday to take pictures surrounding his meeting with Obama.
For the moment, that focus on Trump is Sanders’ main post-California argument.
“Donald Trump would clearly, to my mind and I think the majority of Americans, be a disaster as president of the United States. It is unbelievable to me, and I say this in all sincerity, that the Republican Party would have a candidate for president who in the year 2016 makes bigotry and discrimination the cornerstone of his campaign. In my view, the American people will not vote for or tolerate a candidate who insults Mexicans and Latinos, who insults Muslims, who insults African-Americans and women,” Sanders said at the White House on Thursday after meeting with Obama. “Needless to say, I am going to do everything in my power, and I will work as hard as I can, to make sure Donald Trump does not become president of the United States.”
Sanders and his team are still puzzling through how to start bringing his supporters into Clinton’s fold: he regularly insists he can’t just “snap his fingers” or “press a button” and make them support her. Democrats took note on Tuesday night when the only mention of Clinton in Sanders’ speech, when he said they had shared a gracious call, was met with an eruption of boos that drowned Sanders out — and that Sanders didn’t wave off.
And when Cornel West spoke at Sanders’ Washington rally on Thursday night, he called Clinton a “milquetoast neoliberal sister” (compared to the “narcissist neo-fascist” Trump), yet another major applause line.
For the moment, Sanders’ more influential supporters are giving him some time, and the benefit of the doubt, while he shuttles between Washington and his home in Burlington trying to determine what comes next.
“What we’re seeing right now is the passing of the baton from Obama as the leader of the Democratic Party nationally to Hillary as the leader,” conceded Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Sanders-backing superdelegate.
“He’s really done a tremendous job and he’s motivated people, and I know there are a lot of people who are upset that he lost and all that. But I guess the way I look at it is we have to look at it in terms of: ‘what’s the future hold?,’” he added. “And obviously the country will be in much better shape with Hillary than it will with Trump.”
While Sanders meets with aides and colleagues to work through the mechanics of the end of his campaign, a coterie of his operatives and backers are mapping out the next phase.
Chaudhary, for one, intends to stick with the candidate “through the convention,” and the former Obama 2008 and White House video chief is already thinking about how Sanders would be portrayed there, including what he expects will be a two-to-five minute highlight video of the campaign.
Other aides and surrogates, meanwhile, were ensconced in platform committee hearings that began in Washington on Wednesday as the party decides what issues should come into play at its convention in Philadelphia. Sanders allies expect to push for a federal $15 minimum wage and a ban on fracking, among other points, but aides don’t expect the hearings to get especially heated until the St. Louis round two weeks down the road.
In the meantime, the ultimate decisions fall back to Sanders’ own shoulders.
When he landed back East on Wednesday after two weeks in California, he was greeted by a dreary, drizzly Burlington evening. The Burlington Free Press hadn’t put Clinton’s historic win on its front page that morning. The local radio stations were surveying voters about what they plan to do next. Many defiantly responded that they wanted Sanders to run as an independent.
He uncharacteristically pulled aside his chief strategist Tad Devine and his body man Shannon Jackson for individual chats on the tarmac after getting off the flight, backs turned to the cameras. Then he got in his motorcade, taking a few seconds to greet gathered locals, ignoring the press while one Burlingtonian went out of her way to scream at the “corporate media” that Sanders so reviles.
And when he got back on the plane to Washington the next morning to meet with Obama, page one of the Free Press was asking, “What Now, Bernie?”
Darren Samuelsohn, Daniel Strauss, and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.