Can the Democrats Reunite in Time to Stop Trump?
Policy + Politics

Can the Democrats Reunite in Time to Stop Trump?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged from yesterday’s Super Tuesday sweepstakes on an inexorable path to the Democratic presidential nomination after soundly defeating Sen. Bernie Sanders in seven of 11 contests and rolling up an impressive delegate count. 

As expected, Clinton dominated Sanders in the delegate-rich southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, and even beat the Vermont democratic socialist in Massachusetts, despite the New Englander’s home-field advantage. Clinton, the former New York Senator, benefitted from her strong appeal among African-Americans, Hispanics and middle aged and older white Democrats who make up the backbone of the Democratic base throughout the South and Southwest. 

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Sanders counter-punched in his home state of Vermont and three other states where his liberal, anti-Wall Street, free college tuition and healthcare message resonates with a largely white, more youthful and anti-establishment faction of the party. While Clinton was scoring landslide victories in the southern belt with margins as high as 78 percent, Sanders squeaked by in much friendlier turf in Colorado, Minnesota and Oklahoma, where the populations are more homogeneous and the delegate counts are thinner. 

When the dust settled, Clinton had picked up the lion’s share of delegates and was leading in the overall count, 1,033 to 408, according to a Real Clear Politics unofficial count. While Clinton still has a long ways to go to claim the 2,383 delegates needed to win the nomination, she must now be considered the presumptive nominee while Sanders is the party gadfly – continuing to push her as far left as he can on issues to validate his campaign agenda. 

But as billionaire Donald Trump’s menacing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination begins to hit mach speed, the Democrats are facing a perplexing question: How much longer can they afford to let their intra-party battle fester before pulling together to fight a dangerous and politically potent Trump who parlayed widespread voter discontent and anger to a smashing victory in six states last night. 

Clinton seemed eager to shift the focus away from her differences with Sanders to her party’s mounting concern about Trump, as she harshly criticized Trump’s tactics during a victory rally in Miami without uttering Trump’s name. “It’s clear tonight that the stakes of this election have never been higher,” Clinton told her cheering supporters. “And the rhetoric we’re hearing on the other side has never been lower.” 

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In a direct challenge to Trump’s vow to “Make America Great Again,” Clinton said that America remains a great nation but is suffering from partisan divisions that stand in the way of progress. “We have to make America whole,” she said. “We have to fill what’s been hollowed out.” 

Trump was dismissive of Clinton during his own, press conference in Florida last night, saying Clinton would be lucky not to be indicted for her mishandling of State Department emails before she wins the nomination and spoiling to dredge up former President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern and other Clinton family scandals. “If she is allowed to run . . .  it will be a sad, sad thing,” Trump said, referring to the possibility that she could be indicted over the email scandal. 

For his part, Sanders remains riveted on a set of campaign issues that have carried him much further in the race than almost anyone could have guessed ten months ago – mainly  income inequality that benefits the wealthiest Americans, the excesses of Wall Street and the need to reform a “corrupt” campaign finance system. 

Although many political analysts insist he has a near impossible pathway to the nomination, Sanders remains a potent force with extraordinary fundraising capabilities that could easily carry him throughout the remainder of the campaign and into next summer’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Sanders raised an impressive $42 million in February alone, including $6 million on the final day of the month. 

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Sanders made it clear during a victory rally in Vermont last night that he will stay in the race indefinitely and continue to rack up delegates. He and his campaign aides reportedly are mapping out a vigorous schedule in the coming days, with an eye to races in Michigan, Nebraska, Maine, Kansas, Missouri and Ohio. “By the end of tonight we are going to win many hundreds of delegates,” he boasted last night. 

Yet the race for all intense and purposes may be over by March 15 when a host of states go to the polls. At that time, Sanders will have to look in the mirror and decide what kind of role he wants to play ahead of the convention: Either a unifier who acknowledges the threat of Trump and tries to reunite the liberal and more moderate wings of the party or a determined challenger who will continue to press for a more progressive agenda that may be problematic for Clinton to run on this fall. 

“Sanders is just accumulating delegates in order to pull the platform, and Hillary, to the left,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said on Wednesday morning. “Candidates sometimes live in a parallel universe where they think against all the evidence that they can win, so maybe that’s part of it.” 

It won’t be easy to reconcile a party that for now is split along racial, ideological and generational differences. 

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Clinton won big in South Carolina last week and again last night in six other southern states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia – with two thirds or more support from African-American support, while  Sanders was winning the white vote and younger Americans. 

Clinton has accommodated Sanders and his supporters on a broad range of social and fiscal issues, to the point of coopting many of his themes and punch lines. Yet she insists that Sanders isn’t being pragmatic or realistic in calling for free college tuition, universal government health care and trillions of dollars in new taxes. 

Precisely how Clinton and Sanders would eventually bridge their differences in time to take on Trump and the Republicans this fall remains to be seen. And it’s far from clear whether Sanders at some point will relent, or hang on through the convention in the event Clinton’s campaign implodes or she runs into legal problems regarding her State Department emails. 

Another danger is that many of the young voters and progressives who were draw to Sanders’s campaign might decide to sit out the fall campaign and depress the Democratic turnout. Already there are signs that Democratic turnout in many primary and caucus states has declined from four years ago and doesn’t match the enthusiastic turnout of Republicans. 

“The Clinton forces are going to have to be very careful not to inflame Sanders and his delegates,” Sabato said in an email. “Losing isn’t fun and it puts people in a sour mood. The Sanders people have no enthusiasm for Clinton as it is. She can’t afford a split on the left. Naturally, she’ll use Trump to tamp down dissension. But she and her people have to give Sanders respect, before and at the convention.”