Bernie Sanders’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary in Michigan was a warning sign that went unheeded by the party. Ms. Clinton went on to lose Michigan to Donald Trump in the general election by 10,000 votes. Had Democrats paid more attention to working-class antipathy toward Ms. Clinton, they might have avoided that outcome.
It is impossible to know whether Mr. Sanders could have carried Michigan had he been the Democratic nominee in 2016. But what is clear from the results of Tuesday’s primary in the same state is that the Vermont senator has lost his mojo in the state that energized his candidacy four years ago. This time, Joe Biden beat him there by 16 percentage points.
The “movement” voters Mr. Sanders had counted on to take him all the way to the nomination in 2020 have not turned out in the numbers he has needed to overcome his biggest challenge – the coalescence of the moderate majority around a rival candidate.
Mr. Biden has always been the odds-on favourite to rally the anti-Sanders vote. Despite stumbling badly out of the starting gates, the former vice-president under Barack Obama has managed to leverage his popularity (and Mr. Obama’s) among African-American voters to build on the base of moderate and working-class voters that form the core of his support.
Still, it has been galling for Mr. Sanders’s supporters to watch the nomination slip from their candidate’s hands to someone who has run such a weak campaign. Despite delivering good victory speeches on Super Tuesday and in Michigan, most of Mr. Biden’s oral interventions have amounted to musings on the good old days by a man whose memory is clearly fading.
Not surprisingly, a large number of Mr. Sanders’s supporters smell an establishment conspiracy. They don’t understand that the left-wing populism that Mr. Sanders peddles is just as big a threat to the Democratic Party as Mr. Trump’s right-wing populism has been to the Republican Party. Or that the class warfare he wages is as toxic as Mr. Trump’s tweets.
And why would they, when their candidate himself has fed those very conspiracy theories? Every major candidate who had dropped out the race so far, with the exception of the still silent Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, has endorsed Mr. Biden. As Mr. Sanders tells it, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the establishment to “force” everyone else out.
That may or may not be true. But it’s not a conspiracy. It’s just payback.
Mr. Sanders has been a pain in the backside to the Democratic leadership in Congress since he arrived in Washington nearly three decades ago. He has never been a team player and has done more damage to party unity than anyone since George McGovern, who won the nomination in 1972 only to lose spectacularly in the general election to Richard Nixon.
Mr. Sanders, who has never run for office under the Democratic banner, disses Democrats, such as Mr. Biden, who have toiled tirelessly to build the bipartisan coalitions needed to pass most legislation in Congress. Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, has little to show for his three decades in Congress, preferring to play the outsider by tabling bills with no support.
In 2011, Mr. Sanders repeatedly spoke of the possibility of launching a primary challenge against Mr. Obama in the run-up to the 2012 election. “I think one of the reasons that the President has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him, and I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing,” he said in July, 2011. How’s that for loyalty?
Now, Mr. Sanders is running on a platform to replace private health insurance in the United States with a Medicare-for-all plan that he knows stands no chance of passing in Congress and will only hurt Democratic candidates in swing states and districts in November. The Medicare-for-all bill that Mr. Sanders has tabled in the Senate has gained the support of barely a dozen of his colleagues. It would need at least 60 votes to ever become law.
Mr. Sanders has won endorsements from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, two of the insurgent Democrats elected to the House of Representatives in 2018 who have adopted Mr. Sanders’s divisive tactics. So why wouldn’t the establishment try to stop him?
Mr. Sanders is free to fight for what he believes in. But he is not losing because of some establishment plot. He’s losing because most Democrats know he’s not one of them.