The news that Bernie Sanders will appear alongside Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in New Hampshire on Tuesday shouldn’t surprise anyone, except perhaps the most deluded “Bernie or bust” types. For months now, the Vermont senator has been declaring that he will do everything he can to defeat Donald Trump in November’s election, which is clearly a coded way of saying that he will endorse the Democratic candidate when he feels that the time is right.
But Sanders, despite his reputation as a left-wing purist (at least by American standards), is also a canny politician, and he never said that his recommendation would come cheap. To the fury of many Clinton supporters, he has been holding off on offering his endorsement for more than a month now, since the primary season effectively ended, on June 7th. These delaying tactics appear to have worked.
In order to win over Sanders and his supporters, the Clinton campaign has made policy concessions in a number of areas, including education, the minimum wage, and the death penalty. It would be going too far to say that the runner-up in the primaries is dictating policy; on trade, fracking, and some other issues, the Clinton campaign appears to have stood firm and rejected demands by Sanders and his supporters. But the deal that Sanders and Clinton have struck will shift the Democratic Party further away from the centrist, New Democrat philosophy that Bill Clinton campaigned on in 1992, and closer to the social democratic, or “New Deal liberal,” approach that Sanders has long promoted.
The most visible sign of this shift came last week, when Clinton said that she would make tuition free at state colleges and universities for any student whose family isn’t in the top fifteen per cent of the income distribution. Although some details of the Clinton proposal differed from the vision that Sanders laid out during the Democratic primaries, the thrust was the same. In the words of the headline that ran above a critical editorial in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, “Free College, Dude!”
By including an income cap of a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year, the Clinton campaign could claim that it had adhered to the centrist principle of means-testing, making well-to-do individuals—or, in this case, college students who are likely to end up among society’s higher earners—contribute to the cost of government programs that benefit them. In practice, however, it’s hard to see how the arbitrary income limit would survive for very long. Once the principle of free tuition at public colleges was established, the political pressure to raise the eligibility cap would be enormous. In many parts of the country, families who earn a hundred and fifty thousand dollars per year consider themselves middle class. Why should they be punished?
Sanders, who argues that, in today’s economy, a college degree should be considered as essential as a K–12 education, is surely justified in seeing Clinton’s new plan as an important step toward his rights-based, universalist approach. And it is one of several moves she has made in that direction.
One of these concerns was health-care reform. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Clinton campaigned for a public option. Since then, however, she has become a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act, in which the public option—Medicaid—was restricted to low-income families and individuals. Sanders advocated replacing Obamacare with a European-style health-care system that he termed “Medicare for all.” In May, after months of describing the Sanders proposal as unrealistic, Clinton unveiled her own, more limited, version of Medicare expansion.
On Saturday, Clinton reaffirmed this policy and pledged to expand funding for community health clinics that provide primary-care services for people without proper coverage, which was originally another Sanders proposal. In a conference call after the announcement, Sanders called it “a significant step forward as we advance toward the goal of health care for all Americans,” adding, “It’s fair to say that the Clinton campaign and our campaign are coming closer and closer together in trying to address the major issues facing this country, which is what my campaign was all about.”
The minimum wage is another issue where Sanders appears to be winning concessions. Over the weekend, the committee negotiating the Democratic Party platform, which will be adopted at the Party Convention, in Philadelphia, later this month, approved language backing a national minimum of fifteen dollars an hour, with the figure indexed to inflation. This has happened even though some of the economists advising Clinton have expressed fear that the proposal could hurt hiring, and even though, during the primaries, she called for a national minimum of twelve dollars an hour. (She also supported a figure of fifteen dollars in some expensive areas.)
The platform committee also adopted, for the first time, language that explicitly commits the Democratic Party to abolishing the death penalty, another step Sanders had called for. Although many moderate Democrats, including Clinton and President Obama, have criticized the administration of capital punishment, which is still in place in thirty-one states and at the federal level, the Party as a whole hadn’t previously called for the practice to end. Now it will. According to news reports over the weekend, the proposed language reads, “We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It has no place in the United States of America.”
It bears repeating that Sanders didn’t win all of the platform battles. Indeed, a cynical way to interpret the Clinton campaign’s stance is that it has given Sanders the language he demanded on some issues while maintaining the flexibility that it wants, and that its big donors want, in other key areas, such as trade and energy. Over the weekend, the platform committee rejected languagethat would have condemned the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and opposed its being put to a vote in Congress. The committee approved milder language that doesn’t single out the T.P.P. but, rather, simply says that all free-trade deals should include standards that protect U.S. workers.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, this maneuver prompted the Princeton professor Cornel West, one of the representatives Sanders named to the committee, to complain, “It’s clear the corporate wing of the Democratic Party wants the window dressing of populist language—Bernie Sanders language—but are not serious about it.” On this point, it will also be interesting to see the finished platform’s position on Wall Street. Echoing Sanders’s demands, an early draft of the platform called for an “updated and modernized version of Glass-Steagall,” the Depression-era legislation that separated commercial banks from investment banks.
But, despite these qualifications, it’s clear that something has changed. Especially in the past couple of months, Clinton has shifted ground in a number of areas. Her policy evolution can’t be attributed to Sanders alone: ultimately, it reflects a change in sentiment in the Democratic Party, and American society as a whole, in response to rising inequality, disappointed expectations, and the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Where Sanders does deserve credit is for recognizing this historic shift, seizing on it, and pointing it in directions that couldn’t have been predicted even a year ago. He may have lost the Democratic nomination, but only in the narrowest of senses can his campaign be considered a failure.