Bernie‚Äôs Last Stand
ANAHEIM, Calif. — DURING the final days of a most improbable presidential primary season, the home to Disneyland was for a time the unhappiest place on earth. Rumbling and roaring his way across California, Senator Bernie Sanders brought his political revolution to the neighborhood of Goofy and Mickey.
“Anybody here work for Disney?” he asked the crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center. Dozens of hands went up.
“Anybody here making a living wage working for Disney?” No hands went up. After a shower of boos, Sanders continued, showing little joy in his role as socialist scourge. While Disney paid its C.E.O., Robert A. Iger, more than $40 million in total compensation last year, he noted, adults in mouse costumes were living out of motels, making $11 an hour.
He predicted that ABC, owned by Disney, would not report those remarks. What would you expect of the corporate media? But in fact, the local affiliate of the company, ABC 7, reported the dig on its news.
A day later, Donald J. Trump showed up at the same place. His supporters, mostly older whites, clashed outside with protesters, mostly younger Latinos. All the Trump rally appeared to do was unleash a spasm of airborne hatred.
Sanders, by contrast, made his point about the great economic disparity in American life. His rallies in California — nearly two dozen in all — have drawn the expected crowds: young white Bernie bros in man buns, aging lefties in mildly subversive T-shirts — but also a fair amount of Hispanics and curious political neophytes.
So, mission accomplished, yes? The Bern has been felt, the establishment rattled. Voters are decrying a “rigged economy” run by 1-percenters. Time to go back to Vermont, resuming the virtual anonymity that has characterized his quarter-century in Congress.
Not so fast. The Bernistas and the candidate himself may be on something of a late-stage kamikaze mission. The 74-year-old senator is predicting a win here on Tuesday, and with it enough momentum to sway unpledged delegates at what he says will be a “messy” convention in Philadelphia.
That the math is overwhelmingly against him, or that he’s now on a reckless venture, does not seem to matter. As Stephen Colbert noted, Sanders promised to campaign in all 50 states — “51 if you count the state of denial.” The fear among other Democrats is that the Bernie-or-bust crowd will bring Hillary Clinton down, either by leaving her badly weakened or by not voting at all in the fall. One poll in May showed that 20 percent of Sanders supporters would actually vote for Trump.
To this — a scenario that would produce a billionaire president who does not believe in climate change, and would build a police state to round up 11 million undocumented immigrants — many Sanders supporters respond with an agonized shrug.
“I cannot, right now, bring myself to vote for Hillary Clinton,” said Nora Belrose, who dropped her studies at Purdue to become a field organizer for Sanders in the Bay Area. She was getting ready to knock on doors in San Francisco, one of dozens of daily Sanders grass roots activities — from a “Beers and Queers for Bernie” event to a “Bern the Mic” hip-hop fund-raiser. Whether any of this will last longer than an Instagram video is another question.
“Hillary is just too much about the money,” said Robert Sturgeon, who is undecided for the general election. He used to work at a Hyundai dealership in Southern California, though he is now unemployed, and likes what he hears from Sanders.
His complaint about money is another issue that Sanders has forced the Democratic Party he now wants to lead to confront. The party’s current leaders, says Sanders, are all about “running around into rich people’s homes and raising money.”
And if Clinton’s pattern of doing just that — in between rallies of her own with regular folks in California — is a concession to the age of dark money billionaires, the Bernie brigades want nothing to do with it.
It took a party elder, one of the original anti-establishment crusaders, Gov. Jerry Brown, to try to bring Democratic dead-enders back home — Moonbeam to ground control. “This is no time for Democrats to keep fighting each other,” the popular governor wrote on Tuesday, in an open letter announcing his support for Clinton.
Clinton’s delegate lead will most likely push her past the nomination threshold when voting ends in New Jersey on Tuesday — three hours before polls close in California. That margin is “insurmountable,” Brown wrote, leaving Clinton as the one “to stop the dangerous candidacy of Donald Trump.”
Brown hinted at not just the reality disconnect of Sanders’s followers, but of something fundamentally undemocratic about the senator’s long-shot endgame. Clinton, no matter how you dice the numbers, has won approximately three million more votes than Sanders. Playing by the existing rules, she also has that “insurmountable” delegate lead. Sanders wants the much-loathed party establishment to ignore Clinton’s popular vote majority and award the nomination to him because of better poll numbers.
“Do you trust the establishment media?” asked Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks,” an online news show. He posed this question at several Sanders rallies, warming up crowds with the closing pitch of the Bernie brigades.
“The establishment media has been telling us that Hillary Clinton is the more electable candidate against Donald Trump. Find me one poll where Bernie is behind.”
Indeed, Sanders has been crushing Trump in nearly all the recent matchups, while Clinton is barely ahead, or even losing in some. Clinton supporters argue that if the full force of Republican opposition were thrown at him — going after an aging socialist whose plans for free college and health care are no more thought out than a bumper sticker — he’d wither. It’s a debatable point.
If Sanders were to concede at last after Tuesday, even if he won California, he could boast of having moved the Democratic Party to the populist left.
On trade, his critique that global deals favor corporate interests at the expense of working people is ascendant. This may be his strongest argument for drawing in some of Trump’s disaffected white voters, one that Clinton has already tried to incorporate into her campaign.
His blasts at the money-and-lobbyist wing of his party have prompted many Democrats to take a long, hard look at who they are supposed to represent — a well-heeled, well-educated governing class, or something closer to the people at the lower end.
Rule changes are likely to come at the convention, with less power for superdelegates in the future, and more open primaries. And no doubt, what Sanders has set in motion is not going to curdle in Vermont after the convention.
“If we lose California, we’ve still won, because Bernie has done something that nobody else has done this year — set the tone,” said Dan O’Neal, a Sanders delegate from Arizona, who was following his candidate around California. For O’Neal, the fall election is personal: His stepdaughter, a Latina without citizenship, would face deportation under Trump’s roundup plan.
O’Neal says he would never vote for Trump, and he believes even the most zealous and self-righteous of Sanders supporters will come around on Clinton, united in their fear of a Trump presidency. Still, he wants to feel the Bern one more time on June 7.
As does the candidate. On Tuesday night, Sanders raced from a rally in Oakland to Oracle Arena, where the Golden State Warriors were in the midst of an unlikely comeback, after being down 3 games to 1.
“A good omen for our campaign,” he said after the Golden State victory put them in the N.B.A. finals. And when asked if his presence was the difference, he smiled at reporters, for once seeming to enjoy himself. “What other explanation is there?”