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Bernie Sanders Needs A New Argument

He probably isn’t going to defeat Hillary Clinton. But the way he keeps fighting will matter.

Political campaigns and the coverage of them, given all the ego and bombast involved, lend themselves to soothsaying. We make grand proclamations for which there is not yet sufficient evidence, or ones that we could easily wait a few more weeks to utter without any real consequence. But even as we seek to avoid hyperbole, we can’t dodge reality. Bernie Sanders, in all likelihood, won’t be the Democratic nominee for president.

That doesn’t mean he should stop running, or otherwise capitulate to the urgency of either a media narrative or party pressure. But it does mean it’s time for a rhetorical change: Rather than doubling down on Hillary Clinton, the best thing Sanders can do at this point is join her attack on Donald Trump.

To understand why he needs to help his primary opponent, we first have to look at why Sanders’s chances have become so slim. Even before a Super Tuesday that saw him win only four out of 11 primary contests, we could tell that the Sanders path was a limited one. Now, at this point in the game, he is too far behind Clinton in too many states. It was particularly striking to see Sanders lose Massachusetts, a defeat that struck a fatal blow to his nationwide viability argument. He has barely dented Clinton’s staggering advantages among black and Latino voters, and, as Clinton herself proved in 2008, you can’t become the Democratic nominee without them.

His campaign’s demographic appeal is not only more limited than previously thought — it’s also more electorally impotent. The Sanders "political revolution" isn’t boosting voter turnout compared to eight years ago. This is a candidate whose argument for political change centers on making Republicans fold by showing them legions of Americans protesting outside of a window. As illogical as that sounds, it sounds ever more unlikely when Sanders, by himself, isn’t even inspiring enough folks to turn up at the polls.

Both Democratic hopefuls have a vested interest in tapping into the factors that drove such big voter turnouts in 2008. Back then, it wasn’t just the prospect of making history by electing either the first black or first female president: It was also the urgency to move past the disastrous era of George W. Bush. The damage done by America’s worst president since Andrew Johnson seemed nearly incalculable at the time, and it was no surprise when Democrats subsequently surged at the polls. It’s what any party tends to do in a change election; we’re seeing Republicans do it now, driven by Trump, a megalomaniac who is light on policy details and heavy on authoritarianism.

Sanders has alienated voters of color by spending considerable campaign capital on illuminating the failures of President Obama, but he can win some of that favor back by displaying similar passion in warning voters that Trump is no joke. This is why Sanders needs to shift his argument away from one designed to get him elected, and join Clinton in one against the true opponent here: Trump, whom Republican voters actually seem on the verge of nominating. It’s clear that is what Clinton has already begun doing; I doubt that, outside of their upcoming debates, you’ll hear much about Sanders come out of her mouth from this point forward. If Sanders starts focusing his own fire on the presumptive GOP nominee, it may look like he’s indulging in an unlikely fantasy of being the nominee himself. But paired with Clinton’s critiques, the effect could be significant in one important respect: the forthcoming fight to stop Trump.

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The best part? This isn’t a difficult pivot for Sanders to make. It isn’t hard to imagine Trump being even more disastrous than Bush was as president. The standard Sanders themes of fiscal responsibility and allegiance to principle could also easily be employed against him. Doing so would likely help get liberals off their asses, registered, and voting. In places where voting rights are threatened, Sanders could get loud and potentially provoke some of the real change he promises before the election.

I’m not saying he should deviate from his stump speech. I don’t want Sanders to suddenly go docile, nor do I want him, as others have suggested, to merely fall in and be a good Democratic soldier. He may continue making Clinton a stronger candidate by keeping Wall Street reforms a priority, just as she has strengthened him with pressure on issues ranging from Flint to the Hyde Amendment. Though he has occasionally sought to make Clinton appear unethical via calls for her to release transcripts of her Goldman Sachs speeches, Sanders has largely kept this debate limited to the issues. He should keep doing that, especially since he has a better bogeyman in Trump than he could ever hope for in Clinton.

A campaign that combines Sanders’s passionate message with a purposeful get-out-the-vote effort is the best way for him to finish strong. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who cares much about saving face, particularly with the Democratic establishment. But even if he keeps his campaign rolling toward the July convention, as his adviser promised on Wednesday morning, those partisans still "feeling the Bern" shouldn’t get too wrapped up in their feelings about losing. (Perhaps they can literally afford to, since the consequences of a Trump presidency might be less for them, but other communities can’t say the same.)

Mere altruism toward fellow Democrats isn’t enough of a motivation, however; it benefits Sanders to join Clinton in a focused assault on Trump for two main reasons. First, it denies this overwrought, privileged fiction that there’s no difference between the Democrats and Republicans, even as marginalized populations remain overwhelmingly targeted by abortion laws, voter suppression, mass incarceration, and other systemic identity-based discrimination perpetrated largely by the GOP in the last generation. And while Sanders has had trouble incorporating an intersectional approach to racial and gender equality, I don’t doubt that he’s for those things.

Secondly, any progress Sanders has made toward the revolution he wants would be set back generations by a Trump victory. If the movement he inspired is to survive the decline of his campaign, he needs to stand against Republicans, period. The thing any Sanders supporters planning to vote Trump are forgetting, should their guy lose the primary, is that reforming bureaucracy under Sanders would look considerably different under an unqualified scam artist and bigot like Trump. Sanders’s appeal primarily resonates with white voters, but Trump is proposing bigger government just for white people, using public works to calcify their privilege and societal advantage.

This is something worth fighting against, even in the face of the disappointment of a losing primary campaign. The Sanders campaign has largely been about visualizing the world as it should be — and his supporters would likely agree that it should be without a Trump presidency.