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It's time for Bernie Sanders to admit he lost and drop out

Bernie Sanders launched a long-shot presidential campaign, drastically overperformed expectations, fell insurmountably far behind in the delegate race, and then decided he wanted to stay in it all the way until the end so his supporters in every state had a chance to vote. Traditional insurgent campaigns haven't done that, but Hillary Clinton's non-insurgent campaign in 2008 did, and Sanders's success meant that he had the cash he needed to run a full campaign through California.

And good for him.

"Every state gets to vote before we decide the primary is over" is a perfectly reasonable new tradition for an American political party to start, and Sanders can count this principle as one of several constructive influences he's had on the campaign season.

But now that everyone has voted (okay, not DC, but I think even the most die-hard Bernie Bro knows he's losing here), it's time for him to admit that he lost, endorse Clinton, and move on to his next act.

A lot of people are going to be agreeing with me about this today and tomorrow, and they'll mostly be invoking the need for party unity or the specter of Donald Trump. But I think Sanders sincerely believes he'll be the stronger candidate against Trump, rendering this argument unpersuasive.

The real reason, anyway, has nothing to do with Trump. Sanders should drop out for the sake of the millions of young people he's engaged in politics — many of them for their first time ever — and who could have decades of constructive engagement in the process if he teaches them the right lessons.

Those lessons, clearly visible from Sanders's own career, are that big change is hard and if you try for it you are likely to lose, but just because you lost is no reason to give up. It's also no cause to whine about how you've been cheated or take refuge in denial that it's truly over. You need to dust yourself off, move on to the next thing, and try to win more votes in the future.

Sanders's path to victory is ridiculous

The argument for Sanders not dropping out before June 7 was clear and persuasive. A lot of people live in New Jersey, California, and other states voting today. Those people deserve a chance to vote and to have their voices heard. It's true that it's been evident for a couple of months now that the margins Sanders would have needed to win were unrealistic, but very little is accomplished in life by people who restrain their horizons to the realistic.

But Sanders's path to the nomination from today forward isn't just unlikely — it's ridiculous.

It hinges on a double technicality:

  • First, unelected superdelegates can, legally speaking, use their position to swing the nomination against the candidate who won a majority of votes and pledged delegates in favor of the candidate who received fewer votes and fewer pledged delegates.
  • Second, unelected superdelegates who have promised to vote for one candidate can, legally speaking, change their minds and vote for someone else at the convention.

For either of these things to actually happen would be fairly bizarre.

It's easy to imagine superdelegates playing a meaningful, constructive role in a convention where the presence of multiple candidates left the party with no majority vote getter. At one point this spring, Republicans seemed to be facing the difficult challenge of holding a brokered convention with nobody actually there to do the brokering.

The superdelegates, for all their flaws, do solve that particular problem — if someone needs to broker a convention, the Democrats have ensured that their party's elected officials, national committee members, and éminences grises will be present on the floor to try to land the plane safely.

By the same token, if there are a huge number of uncommitted superdelegates the morning after the last primary, then spending time politicking and trying to court them makes some sense as a strategy. But:

  • The idea that a raft of superdelegates who endorsed Clinton before she won the primaries are going to turn around after she secured a majority of votes and delegates and flip the outcome is silly.
  • The idea that they would do so in order to toss the nomination to a self-described independent democratic socialist who campaigned as a scourge of the party establishment is sillier.
  • The idea that they would do so after the socialist in question loudly, publicly, and repeatedly denounced the idea of superdelegates overturning the electoral outcome is so silly that it's hard to believe anyone would entertain it.

The problem is the nature of politics is such that if Sanders insists on saying this is plausible, people will believe him. People who've already emotionally invested themselves in the Sanders campaign — already gone to rallies and argued with uncles and called out corporate media shills on Twitter — are going to be highly predisposed to align themselves with whatever tactical notions Sanders puts out there.

Which is why responsible political leaders have a responsibility to their constituents to not run around saying silly things and spreading silly ideas.

Politics is hard

Bernie Sanders ran four statewide races — twice each for governor and senator — in Vermont in the mid-1970s as the nominee of the Liberty Union Party. He lost all four but secured some upward momentum across the races.

Four years later, in 1980, he found a better opportunity. Burlington is left-wing even by Vermont standards, but its incumbent Democratic mayor had grown very close to the local business community and faced no Republican opposition. Sanders was able to run and win against him as the progressive candidate in a two-way race. Years of service as mayor then proved that beyond ideology, Sanders actually knew how to serve in office and get the job done.

That set him up for a 1986 gubernatorial bid that he, again, lost — finishing in a distant third place but considerably less distant than before.

In 1988 he ran for a US House of Representatives seat in a three-way race and, again, lost. But this election — his sixth statewide bid — was different from the early five in that he finished in second place rather than third, ahead of the Democratic Party's nominee.

That meant that when Sanders ran again in 1990, he'd established the idea that it was the Democratic nominee — not Sanders himself — who was the potential spoiler in the race. And he won! And then in his first 15 years in Congress he cooperated enough with the Democratic leadership that they stopped running candidates against him and cleared the field in 2006 for him to run and win a Senate race.

The point is that the political world is tough. It's particularly tough for people who want to come in from the outside and shake things up. You need high aspirations to achieve anything, but you also need to take punches and get back up again — not go on a roller coaster of excessive optimism and excessive bitterness. Most of all, you can't invest your energy in whining that the system isn't fair. After all, if the system were totally fair, there'd be no need for outsiders to come in and shake things up.

To live, the political revolution needs to die

The real choice facing Sanders over the next couple of weeks is what kind of lesson he wants to impart to his supporters.

Does he want to tell them that the system is rigged, and that candidates worth rallying for don't have a chance to win? That they may as well join the large group of Americans who don't really participate in the political process at all?

Or does he want to tell them that when you fight the good fight, you sometimes lose, and then you stop and think about how to win next time? There are literally thousands of elected offices in the United States of America, virtually all of them easier to win than the White House. And there are millions of Americans — largely people of color — who seem broadly amenable to the main themes of Sanders's campaign but who didn't buy into the particulars of Sanders's persona.

If the people who bought unprecedented fundraising success to the Sanders campaign turn that passion and commitment to other, more winnable contests, they will score some wins. If they recruit a broader base of champions, they will gain more allies.

But to succeed, they need to do what Bernie's done over the course of his career — work hard and keep trying — rather than do what he's been saying he's going to do over the past month and waste time on a deluded and slightly ridiculous superdelegate chase that can only end in humiliation.

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