On Thursday night, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gave a speech, doing everything he would have done if he were dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary, but then stopped short. It was as though he walked right up to the edge of the cliff, and changed his mind.
Make no mistake, Bernie Sanders is still running for president, but his campaign effectively ended tonight. Sanders thanked his supporters, encouraged them to keep fighting for his principles, and said he would work with Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump. Every member of the media was waiting with bated breath for those final, fateful words, “and so tonight, I am suspending my campaign” … but they never came.
Perhaps Bernie Sanders has yet to accept his full defeat. More likely, he wishes to enter the Democratic National Convention next month with enough clout to force his views into the party platform. He still has 1,881 delegates (to Clinton’s 2,800), and claims to represent a political revolution. But in the way that matters most, his revolution has failed, and his speech tonight was a concession to that failure.
The bulk of his remarks centered on calling for a “new generation actively engaged in public service.” He restated the major points of his campaign — from reinstating Glass-Steagall to banning the economic dynamism of the fracking revolution — and declared that his supporters’ number one political goal “is to make certain that Donald Trump is defeated, and is defeated badly.”
In true concession speech style, Sanders listed the political achievements of his campaign and urged his supporters to fight on — “We must continue our grassroots effort to make the America that we know we can become.” He called for a new Democratic Party, “a party of working people and young people,” rather than the Democratic establishment. He emphasized making “certain that your voices are heard, and that the Democratic Party forces the most progressive platform in its history.”
Bernie Sanders is still in the race, but he knows that the best he can shoot for is impacting the party platform. This is not insignificant — one of the key reasons Ted Cruz likely should not have dropped out after Indiana is the fact that he could have (and still might) pushed the Republican Party platform to the right. But by focusing on the party platform and uniting with Clinton to defeat Trump, Bernie has effectively risen the white flag.
The clearest way Sanders demonstrated that this was — despite technicalities — a concession speech was the way he called for his movement to keep working, and get involved in local politics. A candidate seriously running for president does not emphasize local politics. Here it is:
Here is a cold, hard fact that must be addressed: since 2009, some 900 legislative seats have been lost to Republicans. … That is unacceptable.
We need to start engaging at the local and state level in and unprecedented way. … Hundreds of thousands of volunteers helped us make political history this last year. Now we need many of them to start running for school boards, county commissions, state legislatures, and governorships. We cannot allow right wing Republicans to increasingly control them. …
Please go to my website at berniesanders.com/win to learn more about how you can effectively run for office and get elected in politics at the local or state level. Our campaign has shown that we can win significant numbers of local and state elections if people are involved.
We need new blood in the political process and you are that new blood.
In fact, Sanders went even further, declaring that “when we talk about transforming America, it is not just elections.” He told his supporters to get involved in society — as doctors and nurses providing quality healthcare, childcare workers and teachers serving the next generation, scientists trying to make solar, wind, and geothermal sources of energy more cost-effective.
To think the candidate uttering these words did not withdraw from the race. He did not endorse the presumptive Democratic nominee. He did not tell his supporters to back Hillary. This would seem utter madness, were it not for Sanders’ unlikely position.
Next Page: Why the non-concession concession speech actually makes sense.
Sanders knows he will not win the Democratic nomination for president. He knows Hillary Clinton has beat him. But he also knows that the strongest way to push the party in his direction is to remain a potential threat.
If anyone has read The Art of the Deal, it’s Bernie Sanders. He can still walk away from the table. Bernie Sanders can hold his presidential candidacy over the head of the Democratic Party and say, “you give me what I want, or I’ll make your convention a living hell.” He’s given up winning the nomination, but he’ll never surrender the leverage of a strong second place showing.
This speech also reflects the influence of Donald Trump in another key way. Bernie Sanders spoke for a long time, and he had the speech leaked to the media. Every word he spoke hinted at a single concluding sentence — that he would withdraw from the race. Journalists were waiting with bated breath, and that’s exactly where you want them to be.
Not dropping out is almost more shocking than dropping out would be at this point. That’s why Sanders went on for 25 minutes, and why he kept emphasizing every part of his platform, every step members of his movement should take going forward. All this after he called for defeating Donald Trump first and foremost, and working with Hillary Clinton to do so.
Bernie Sanders also emphasized how history will remember his campaign. “My hope is that when future historians look back at how our country moved forward in reversing the trend toward oligarchy, they will not that that effort began with the revolution of 2016,” he declared. Ironically, if Sanders’ “Democratic Socialism” were to be fully implemented, it would support oligarchy — the union of big business and big government we call “crony capitalism.”
But that is an argument for another time. Tonight, we know that Bernie Sanders has conceded the Democratic presidential nomination — but not his place in Democratic Party history. Or maybe he just changed his mind halfway through the speech. We’ll never really know.
Watch the speech on the next page.