Bernie Sanders Under Pressure to Drop Out After Disappointing Finishes
After a series of wins on Tuesday extended Joe Biden’s delegate lead to an all-but-insurmountable level, Democratic leaders began publicly calling on Sanders to end his campaign, fearing a prolonged fight could splinter the party and give Trump another term in office.
But Sanders and some allies are having none of it. He agreed on Wednesday that defeating Trump was the party’s ultimate goal, but said he remained convinced he was the candidate to do it. He insisted that voters supported his progressive agenda, even though they were choosing Biden for “electability” reasons.
“Today I say to the Democratic establishment, in order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country and you must speak to the issues of concern to them,” he told reporters.
Easing Sanders out of the race won’t be easy. Vermont Democrats who know him say it’s unlikely he would succumb to party pressure and will need to come to such a conclusion on his own.
“I’ve known Bernie Sanders for many, many years,” said Peter Shumlin, the former governor of Vermont who is supporting Biden. “He’s pragmatic. He’s practical and nobody is going to influence Bernie and Jane in this decision,” he said, referring to Sanders’s wife.
Madeleine Kunin, who served as governor of Vermont in the 1980s, winning a second term against an independent challenge from Sanders in 1986, said she believes he will eventually decide to drop out. She said she hopes he does so quickly.
“I think it was a mistake in 2016 to continue to attack Hillary mercilessly,” Kunin said of Sanders’s 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton. “My hope is that Bernie would recognize that himself, that he doesn’t want to be a spoiler this time again.”
She added: “I hope he would ease up on Biden in the next debate because it only helps Trump.” Sanders and Biden are scheduled to debate Sunday in Phoenix.
Sanders signaled that he had no plans to go easy on Biden in the debate, as he previewed the questions he was going to ask the former vice president on health care, income inequality and the criminal justice system.
“Joe, what are you going to do?” he said Wednesday, describing his theme for the first one-on-one debate.
Representative Pramila Jayapal, a top surrogate for Sanders, defended his decision to continue his bid and said she believes he will reassess the situation after the next debate and round of contests next Tuesday.
Those contests are largely in states friendly to Biden, including Florida, where a Mason-Dixon poll on Tuesday showed that 70% of Latinos in the state would not vote for a socialist, as Sanders describes himself. The other states are Arizona, Illinois and Ohio.
“I think we should be able to have this next debate and we should be able to have these next contests, and then let’s reassess where we are,” she said. “I don’t think that Senator Sanders is going to drag this out longer than feels right.”
But other key Democrats say the time has come for Sanders to rally behind Biden.
“I think when the night is over, Joe Biden will be the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination, and, quite frankly, if the night ends the way it has begun, I think it is time for us to shut this primary down, it is time for us to cancel the rest of these debates,” Representative James Clyburn, who helped revive Biden’s campaign with his endorsement ahead of the South Carolina primary last month, told NPR Tuesday night.
Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who did not endorse a candidate, vehemently disagreed. She said her congressional district is the only one in the state that Biden did not win outright and remains too close to call.
She said “it’s not healthy for the process” for elected Democrats to push Sanders to exit the race. The party needs to be able to retain the energy among so many voters that Sanders ignited, she added.
“Democracy says you don’t tell somebody they have to get out,” Dingell said. “That’s what a democracy is. The young people came out. There was a three-hour wait in Ann Arbor yesterday. We’re getting new people in, and we need them in. I want to work with both candidates to figure out how we all come together and remember what November is about, which is winning.”
Sanders hasn’t wavered from his stated commitment to back Biden if the former vice president wins the nomination. But over the past week, he has escalated his attacks against Biden in an effort to draw sharper contrasts with his chief rival. Sanders has criticized Biden for supporting the Iraq war and “disastrous” trade deals like Nafta. He has also condemned Biden’s record on same-sex marriage, federal funding for abortions and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” that allowed some LGBTQ people to serve but only if they did not reveal their sexuality.
Still, some Democrats blame Trump’s victory over Clinton on the drawn-out primary in 2016, when Sanders refused to drop out of the race even after he no longer had a plausible path to the nomination. The failure to unite the party, they argue, depressed turnout in key swing states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, where Trump defeated Clinton by narrow margins.
Now, after his losses to Biden on Tuesday night, Sanders once again faces bleak odds and the pressure to drop out.
Four years ago, the party leadership was locked in a nearly identical impasse, anxious to ease Sanders from the race and consolidate support behind the establishment candidate with a near-insurmountable delegate lead – in that case, Clinton. Sanders’s exit was eventually engineered over several weeks in a series of phone calls that Sanders and his staff held with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I had a number of meetings with him,” Reid told Bloomberg News in a recent interview. “Bernie is a man of principle, has strong views about things, and didn’t want in any way to give up on any of the things he felt strongly about.”
Reid eventually persuaded Sanders that while he would continue to travel and give speeches promoting his views, he would refrain from attacking Clinton, allowing the party to begin the process of coming together.
The challenge Biden and Democrats face now is getting Sanders to come around to a similar agreement.
In the end, Reid said, there was one argument he made that Sanders agreed was compelling enough to step aside.
“That argument,” Reid recalled, “was that we’d kind of like to win the presidency.”
(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, also sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He endorsed Joe Biden on March 4.)