On Tuesday night, after losing four out of the day's five primaries, including in the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was on a stage in West Virginia, talking about truth.
"Truth is not always pleasant. It's not always something you are happy to hear. But if we go forward as human beings, if we go forward as a nation, we cannot sweep the hard realities of our lives under the rug," Sanders told the crowd at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena, running through his usual stump speech. The media, he continued, does not deal with those realities, mostly because it is owned by large corporate interests "in a way that we need to be discussing."
What are those realities? According to Sanders, there's the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the water is poisoned, and the one in nearby Detroit, "where the public school system is on the verge of collapse." The country's infrastructure is falling apart, he added, income inequality is rampant, and child poverty is worse in the US than in any other developed country. And despite a national unemployment rate of just 5 percent, many Americans are still suffering, including "right here in West Virginia."
"This state has the lowest labor participation rate in the country," Sanders pointed out. "In fact, only fifty-four percent of the working-age population in this state has a job."
What makes this particular performance noteworthy is that Sanders has only so many more stump speeches to give. With just a handful of primaries left in the Democratic presidential race, his rhetoric is running out of road. At this point, it seems safe to say he will never be president—he out-fundraised and outspent his only opponent, Hillary Clinton, in Tuesday's contests, and still lost decisively. He may still pick up delegates here and there, but California, where Clinton leads in the polls, looms on June 7; if he's not mathematically eliminated before then, the state's primary—the last of the 2016 election—will almost certainly be the final nail.
This is not to say Sanders doesn't have reasons to stay in the race, chief among them to force the Democratic Party to acknowledge that the support he commands is too powerful to be dismissed. Clinton, who knows she'll need his rabid fan base in the general election fight, went out of her way to praise her rival Tuesday night. Moreover, without Sanders in the race, it's hard to believe she would have floated the famously liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren as a potential vice presidential pick.
In his West Virginia speech, Sanders pointed to a variety of reasons that he could still win the nomination, describing how his campaign had clawed its way to within a couple of percentage points of Clinton in national polls. And as he does in most speeches nowadays, he noted that most surveys show him performing better in increasingly hypothetical match-ups against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
This Trump-like focus on polling may play well with Sanders's passionate base, but it's not really the senator's strong suit. Sanders, a self-described socialist whose political career has been defined by his principled but unpopular positions on lefty issues like single-payer healthcare, is not a born winner. He's a denouncer of wrongs, a gloomy prophet—which is to say, not quite the Messiah.
As Sanders's campaign slowly peters out, people will wonder why he couldn't beat Clinton, a candidate with a lot of "negatives"—pollster-speak for the fact that surveys suggest a lot of voters dislike her, distrust her, or both. Perhaps the problem was that he began this whole messy campaign with virtually no name recognition, or any political organization to speak of. Or maybe it was that the Democratic Party machine lined up against him, or that he failed to connect with black voters, allowing Clinton to sweep states across the South.
Or maybe the problem was simply that basing a presidential bid around the claim that the economy is rigged, politics are corrupt, and America is a plutocracy was never a winning a strategy to begin with. Most modern presidents—think Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama—won elections by mixing righteousness and hope into their campaign messages. Even George W. Bush had his "compassionate conservatism." In 2016, Hillary Clinton seems to be following this lead, unafraid of pivoting to schmaltz in ads based around "love and kindness."
Sanders, on the other hand, has been out there telling the kids that they are fucked, in so many words. "Forty years ago, before the explosion of technology... before the global economy, it was possible in America for one person, one breadwinner, to earn enough money to take care of the entire family," he began one of his riffs Tuesday. "Today, mom is out working, dad is out working, the kids are out working, and they have less disposable income than a one-breadwinner family had forty years ago. Something is wrong with our economy."
That last line, believe it or not, brought on a massive applause break as Sanders sipped from a glass of water.
To quote The Big Lebowski, Sanders isn't wrong. He's just an asshole—he's abrasive, he's uncompromising, he'll never back down out of politeness. There's a place in politics for guys like that, and the American left—the one that, as you might remember, fielded pre-climate change Al Gore and John Kerry as back-to-back presidential candidates—could certainly use a dose of fiery populism. I don't know if Sanders would rather be right than be president, but it looks like he'll have to settle for the former anyway.
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