When he first decided to run for president, Bernie Sanders had a goal in mind: to start a political revolution by getting big money out of politics.
If he wants to do it—if Sanders wants to build a lasting movement to fight money’s outsize influence—he has to close one door to open another. The transition from contender to gracious supporter of the nominee isn’t easy for any presidential candidate, but he needs to make it, and soon.
We already know Sanders isn’t going to win the Democratic Party’s nomination; Hillary Clinton has amassed more than 92 percent of the delegates needed to secure the nomination, and she’ll easily pick up the rest. So right now, Sanders’ campaign is the walking dead: a zombie. And having worked for John Kerry during the slugfest of the 2004 primaries, I’ve seen up close how much damage this sort of prolonged “zombie” candidacy can inflict on the eventual nominee—and what’s ultimately at stake for the country.
I don’t claim that the dragged-out primary made the difference in November 2004; the race came down to the wire, and big forces—including post-9/11 anxiety and “Swift Boat” smears—loomed large. But in presidential campaigns, the one resource that’s never renewable is time. Zombie candidates can’t win the nomination, but they squander vast amounts of time and slowly chip away at the prohibitive front-runner. Some of the damage is obvious—the endless series of public dents in the candidate’s reputation; some are subtle, noticeable in ways that perhaps only political operatives can appreciate.
It’s an article of faith in politics that competitive primaries create stronger nominees, and I witnessed this firsthand as well. Kerry grew immensely as a candidate in the course of being tested by rivals from Dick Gephardt to Howard Dean; ditto for Barack Obama in 2008. Healthy competition is a good thing. But continuing to contest a primary after your path to victory disappears is not healthy; it actively hinders your would-be partisan ally.
Before spring began in 2004, it was clear that the process had produced a nominee. But deep into primary season, after a winning streak that knocked out most of our opponents, the campaigns of Dean, Wesley Clark and John Edwards lingered on. Even as they were on life support, their organizations took needlessly hard shots at Kerry at the same time Republicans were inundating the presumptive Democratic nominee with a daily barrage of attacks.
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