The assumption was that Bernie Sanders would have no chance of becoming the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. It was understood that he would get a few months to highlight the issues of austerity and inequality before quickly succumbing to Hillary Clinton's highly experienced and well-financed political machine in the early primaries--probably right after the votes were counted in New Hampshire, if not Iowa. He would then exit gracefully, assuring his supporters, with Hillary at his side nodding in agreement, that the important problems facing the "middle class" had been forcefully and irreversibly placed on the Democratic Party's presidential agenda, that it was going to be wonderful for America to have its first woman president, and that the most important thing to do now was to make sure the goddamn Republicans don't win.
I'm still betting we are going to hear that speech. But the path to it is becoming considerably more complicated, and the stage may not look the same. It's interesting to consider how the dynamic of the Sanders campaign within the Democratic Party is unfolding.
Preliminary note: I am not going to focus on the deep problems with Bernie's politics, which are important, but not crucial for this essay. For the purposes or this discussion, I'm going to treat the Sanders campaign as a vehicle that has attracted and mobilized many good progressives for substantively good reasons. My point here is to think about where this campaign is likely going. To clarify where I stand, I'll put some remarks on two of the substantive political issues that should not be ignored into the first endnote. 1
Let's first consider Hillary's assets and advantages.
We must begin with the superdelegates. The superdelegate system, through which 20% of the convention delegates are appointed essentially ex officio, with no vote of the party's constituency, was created after the McGovern defeat precisely to prevent anyone remotely leftist from winning the Democratic nomination. This system gives the un-Democratic Party's establishment great confidence that it can squelch the kind of uprising of its popular base that is now roiling the more democratic Republican Party. Those superdelegates, and the Party establishment to which they belong, are, of course, overwhelmingly Hillary supporters. That means she starts out with a 20% lead.
To be sure, there are scenarios that imagine scores of those superdelegates peeling off into a Sanders campaign after a couple of primary wins, as happened with Obama in 2008. These sugarplum visions ignore the fact that the difference between Obama and Hillary is nothing like the difference between Hillary and Bernie. Obama was vetted and approved by the ruling class and the Democratic Party establishment as entirely non-threatening, manageable, and amenable to its neoliberal agenda.
In 2008, Democratic politicians may have ticked off the Clintons by defecting to Obama, but they faced no reprisal from their ruling class donors,, or from the party apparatus as a whole for doing so. In 2016, Bernie Sanders is anathema to the Democratic Party establishment because he's anathema to the sectors of the ruling class that support it. it will be made quite clear to every Democrat that he or she will be pay a high cost for defecting to Sanders. Obama was not the leftist candidate the superdelegates exist to stop; Sanders is.