A few months ago a Democratic strategist and I were watching cable news. CNN had a story on the Republican primary fight between Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio. "The GOP house is on fire," the strategist told me. "But on June 7, it will be the Democratic house that’s burning down."
Looks like we’re ahead of schedule. Not only is Hillary Clinton engaged in a two-front war, her left flank is crumbling. She lost Oregon to Bernie Sanders and barely won Kentucky. Supporters of the democratic socialist from Vermont wreaked havoc at the Democratic Party convention in Nevada after they did not get their way. Sanders’s condemnation of violence is insufficient for party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whom the Sanders campaign accuses of colluding with the Clintons. A Hillary supporter who recently portrayed Clarence Thomas in an HBO hit job was arrested and charged with simple battery against two Bernie voters. Dianne Feinstein warns of a return to the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
The same media that puffed up Sanders’s image when he filibustered the partial renewal of the Bush tax cuts in 2010, that treated him as a lovable oddity for most of 2016, has turned against him. "Bernie Sanders, Eyeing Convention, Willing to Harm Hillary Clinton in the Homestretch," bleats the warning in the New York Times. "At least five of the nine permit applications to hold demonstrations during the four-day event have been filed by pro-Sanders forces," the Wall Street Journal reports. "Civil War for Democrats?" asks McClatchy.
Fueling the panic is the prospect of victory by the presumptive Republican nominee. "A fractured Democratic Party threatens Clinton’s chances against Trump," says the Washington Post. Liberal commentators who have been suspicious of Sanders’s lunatic proposals and alarmed at the irrationality of his social media mob are finally recognizing the senator for what he is: an irritable crank. "Sanders—not just his supporters, not even just his surrogates, but the candidate himself—has a problem both in facing reality and in admitting mistakes," writes Paul Krugman. "It all comes from the very top," says Josh Marshall.
Marshall may be more right than he knows. As I read the coverage of the mess in which Hillary Clinton finds herself, I cannot help noticing the absence of two significant words: Barack Obama. Does the president sympathize with and support Hillary Clinton? As far as I know. But he has not come to her aid in this most important of intraparty conflicts. Recently he delivered two commencement addresses, one a subtle critique of the radicalism behind the Sanders campaign, the other a not-so-subtle attack on the nationalism behind Trump’s. Both speeches were good, are worth reading. But they have the same force as the thousands of words that the president has leveled at Vladimir Putin over the years: none.
Here is another civil war in which Barack Obama chooses not to intervene. If asked why he’s not doing more to support Clinton, he would no doubt offer the same excuses he makes when confronted with his lassitude abroad. I can hear him now: Hillary’s an unreliable ally, a freeloader, needs to fight her own battles. Confronting Sanders is unnecessary—Clinton is just a few contests away from winning the required number of pledged delegates, this fire will put itself out, socialism is an outmoded, twentieth-century way of thinking. Making the most of the bully pulpit would be counterproductive, would turn Sanders’s voters away. That’s not just my opinion. It’s what the experts say. If I got involved in the Democratic civil war, why, I’d have to get involved in the GOP civil war, in the Libertarian Party civil war, in the Constitution Party civil war. How would Americans respond? No, it’s either neutrality in this primary or droning Bernie. And I for one am not willing to do that.
The same facile thinking, the same false choices, the same misplaced confidence in inertia and in progressive evolution that governs President Obama’s diplomacy is evident in his response to the Sanders threat. Like ISIS, Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, Bernie Sanders is not a problem the Democrats can wish away. If the last week tells us anything, it is that Sanders and his diehards do not recognize the legitimacy of a primary system they believe to be corrupt, are willing indeed eager to undermine a party funded by Wall Street and supportive of war and hypocritical in its treatment of working people.
What the Democrats have in Bernie Sanders is not the bespectacled gadfly they had thought, not a good-natured ideas-driven candidate running to make a point, but an agent of subversion, a Ralph Nader running within the party rather than outside it. Ironic the Democrats find themselves in the same place that the Republicans did in the summer of 2015: having to deal with an eccentric populist with a cult following and an independent financial base whose interests do not align with those of the party elite. Obama, Clinton, Wasserman Schultz must decide whether to capitulate to, coopt, or confront Sanders. The Clintons never will surrender their last chance to occupy the White House. The strategy of cooptation, of moving ever left, has not produced the desired result. Confrontation? Risky—and Democrats do not like risk. But it may be necessary. And how will Sanders respond? Could the third-party independent candidate some have been searching for wind up being a bald grandpa from Brooklyn?