He waited, he waffled, he dragged his feet and he played for time, but in the end Bernie Sanders finally conceded on Monday that Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic primary race. Contrary to the fears of some of her supporters and the expectations of some of his interpreters, Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton wasn’t tepid or equivocal but ringing and full-throated. "She will be an extraordinary president and I will do whatever I can to get her elected," he said.
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But Sanders’ return to prime time was fleeting. His emphatic speech in New Hampshire was almost immediately eclipsed by President Obama’s sweeping oratory at the memorial service for five slain policemen in Dallas. Although only a few weeks had passed since Sanders’ defeat was deemed final, his appearance seemed like a faded rerun of a political drama that was long gone from the screen. This was especially pronounced in a week that America had turned away from politics and focused on itself and on the violent racial tensions that plagues it - and that Sanders had seemed to ignore.
Thus, while the relief and elation at a campaign rally in New Hampshire seemingly contradicted the somber emotions so visibly on display at the memorial in Dallas, the two events were not unrelated. Both tried to draw a line on divisions of the past and launch a new chapter of unity for the future, with Clinton and Sanders in one and Obama and his predecessor George Bush in the other. More significantly, the tragedies of the past week in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas highlighted the Achilles’’ heel of Sanders’ campaign and the main reason he lost out to Clinton. Sanders portrayed America’s ills almost exclusively through the prism of big banks, Wall Street and the gaps between rich and poor, and was thus perceived as diminishing the role of race relations and discrimination felt by minorities, especially blacks. African Americans, without whom no Democrat can be selected as his party’s candidate, consequently kept their distance from Sanders and voted for Clinton. As they knew from personal experience and as Obama eloquently reminded his audience in Dallas on Monday, Americans may have come a long way to end discrimination but they’ve still got a long way to go.
Sanders extolled Clinton’s understanding on issues on which their advisers had reached agreement in recent weeks. He ignored those matters on which they hadn’t. So he praised Clinton’s intention to tackle income inequality, universal health care, college tuition and global warming. He made no mention of questionable speeches for Wall Street, her vote for the war in Iraq or what he views as her hawkish interventionism overseas.
But Sanders’ unabashed and unexpected endorsement didn’t come about because he suddenly saw the light on Clinton but because of the long shadow cast on Democrats by Donald Trump. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s famous saying on how the gallows sharpens the mind of the condemned, the specter of a Trump victory in November made it crystal clear to Sanders that he needs to overcome his reservations and give Clinton his full backing. Other than his most hard core supporters, his own voters would never forgive him if he didn’t and he probably wouldn’t forgive himself either.
Trump is also responsible for the fact that the proportion of Sanders’ supporters who refuse to commit to voting for Clinton has gone down drastically since the tense confrontations between the two Democratic candidates at the height of the primary season, from 40 per cent then to about 15 now. Sanders faces the same criticism that Netanyahu does vis a vis the security compensation that America is offering Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal: they both missed their moment. Just as Netanyahu could have extracted a far steeper price from the Obama administration when it seemed that Israel’s acquiescence was critical to securing Congressional approval for the nuclear deal, Sanders could have emerged with more concessions if he had agreed to endorse Clinton when his support was seen as critical for her political standing and for convincing his supporters to come to her side.
Sanders defenders have several justifications for his relatively long hiatus. Sanders and his supporters needed time to digest, they say. Sanders’ used the month and a half since his defeat in the California primary to consolidate the transformation of his support from a personal campaign to an ideological movement and to extract as many concessions from Clinton as possible. In fact, he can point to several achievements in the Democratic platform and in Clinton’s public pronouncements, especially on social and economic issues that are dear to his heart. If Sanders needed a fig leaf, Clinton was willing to give him an entire costume.
Sanders was less successful in the overhyped efforts of his representatives to introduce significant changes to the Israeli-Palestinian chapter in the Democratic platform. Inserting the word “occupation” to the platform probably interested him less than it did many of his voters and his representatives on the party’s platform committee. Sanders knows full well that the practical significance of the platform is minimal on internal issues and virtually nonexistent on foreign affairs. By the same token, the Monday report of the GOP’s decision to omit the two-state solution from its party platform is mostly an indication that the party’s grassroots has moved so far to the right as to make even Netanyahu seem like a leftie. It will have no impact whatsoever on a Republican administration, if Trump is ultimately elected.
The GOP candidate reacted angrily on Monday to Sanders’ endorsement, accusing him of “selling out” to Clinton and calling on the Senator’s supporters to vote for him instead. Trump knows that the unity shown in New Hampshire by Democrats could stand in stark contrast to the internal tensions that might very well erupt out in the open in next week’s Republican convention in Cleveland. He should be far more worried by the possibility that both New Hampshire and Dallas signify a shift in the prevailing public winds and that Americans are now seeking unity instead of division, conciliation rather than strife and a president who can be trusted to do more than incite Americans against each other.