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Sanders' next moves will determine his legacy

What will history say about the two remarkable but ultimately unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination waged by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders?

That depends.

If Sanders’ criticism of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party as too beholden to moneyed special interests, and his efforts to drag Democrats toward a democratic socialist model more suited to European political tastes, has so divided the party that it helps re-elect President Donald Trump, then history may not look back kindly.

But in announcing his decision Wednesday to suspend his campaign, Sanders appeared to recognize that it is in the better interest of the causes he espouses to find common ground and assist, not hinder, the remaining Democrat in the race and the man who will face Trump — former Vice President Joe Biden. Sanders said he would remain on state primary ballots, accumulate delegates, and seek to influence the party platform, “Then together, standing united, we will go forward to defeat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern American history.”

Sanders changed the Democratic Party. He made the case that it was not enough to simply play it safe, to win by keeping close to the political middle, by trying not to offend too many voters. It was the model for victory used by President Bill Clinton and his “new Democrats” and, setting aside his charisma and oratory gifts, largely by President Barack Obama.

Sanders, more than anyone, reminded the party it should stand for something. That it should motivate voters. And for Democrats that meant standing up for the interests of the working-class, attacking the unfairness that middle-income and low-income salaries had stagnated while more of the nation’s wealth transferred to a privileged few, and assuring access to education, the great equalizer.

He showed how a candidate could shun deep-pocketed donors and instead rely on a mass of small donations.

Sanders was the most authentic of candidates. He wanted to break up the big banks and bring Big Pharma to heel. Given his way, he would heavily tax the rich, and raise taxes on the middle class too, to provide free college educations, fund a national health-care system, and rebuild the energy sector to be climate friendly. His policies were never poll driven or focus-group tested.

But politics, particularly American-style politics played at the national scale, demands a degree of pragmatism. In a parliamentary system, Sanders may have been able to assemble a coalition to carry out the “revolution” he sought to inspire. The American system, however, gives disproportionate power to small, conservative states and politically split “toss-up” states. A party seeking to win the Senate, as well as the presidency — in other words to control the levers of actual change, not just pursue aspirational dreams — must win some in those places, too.

Ultimately, a majority of Democrats, and unaffiliated voters who tend toward Democratic ideals, did not see a Sanders’ campaign as broad enough to defeat Trump. They want access to affordable health care, the opportunity for training and higher education without falling deeply in debt, and for the threat posed by climate change to be taken seriously. But they want these things through improvement, not revolution.

With Sanders’ early primary victories came predictions he would run away with the nomination. But math was ignored. When vote totals for the hard-left progressive candidates, including Sanders, were totaled they were less than those cast for moderates. And when, after Biden’s big victory in South Carolina the other moderates dropped out and backed Biden, it resulted in Biden’s strong showing Super Tuesday, March 3. That, in retrospect, effectively ended the race. Sanders’ predictions that he could win — in the primaries and later in November — by generating much larger turnouts, particularly among young voters, never materialized.

The challenge for Biden is to unite the Democrats. The desire to defeat Trump will help. So can Sanders.

Biden must convince Sanders’ supporters that he carries their ideals forward. That universal access to health care may not come by way of a national system, but instead by building on the Affordable Care Act and including a public option. That fully free college may not be realistic, but universal free community college, more forgivable student aid and some degree of student loan forgiveness can be. That increasing working-class wages will be a Biden priority and addressing climate change a job creator.

“While the path may be slower, we will change this nation,” Sanders told his supporters.

He recognizes that change must begin with the defeat of Donald Trump.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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