POLITICS
05/03/2016 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

No, Bernie Sanders Has Not Pushed Hillary Clinton To The Left

He's done something much more important.

Andrew Renneisen via Getty Images
Bernie Sanders has achieved something more significant than making Hillary Clinton embrace more progressive policies.

Different people run for president for different reasons. Some want to publicize important issues or influence political party platforms. Some want to sell books or score cable news contracts. Some actually want to be president.

If Bernie Sanders jumped into the presidential primary game to move Hillary Clinton to the left on economic justice, he failed. Back when Clinton was still worrying about Sanders securing the Democratic nomination, she spent weeks accusing him of running a single-issue campaign on economic inequality. Her charge was essentially true. And on all but one key tenet of Sanders' economic platform, Clinton hasn't budged.

Listen to HuffPost's analysis of the Sanders and Clinton campaigns on the latest episode of the "So, That Happened" politics podcast, embedded below:

Clinton's sole leftward economic conversion was on trade. Early in the campaign, Clinton told a reporter she opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she had helped craft during her tenure at the State Department. This was real movement, but it probably won't matter. President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans had the votes to pass TPP last year. It's just a question of when House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) decides to bring it to the floor (hint: lame-duck session).

In the months since this reversal, Clinton has attacked single-payer health care and repeatedly defended her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs by invoking the logic of Citizens United. On Wall Street reform, she has maintained her original position of implementing Dodd-Frank (with a few new disclosures). Her top economist supporters have dismissed the too-big-to-fail banking problem as unimportant. When the Sanders campaign touted research from a liberal academic, Clinton's economic braintrust smeared him without even reading his analysis.

Clinton herself continues to defend the 1994 welfare reform bill, which was designed to cut public assistance to the poor, and succeeded in doing so. She downplayed the entire issue of economic inequality on the grounds that solving it will not fix racism (no word on how it would impact the "super predator" problem). Her position on the minimum wage is a number salad.

Clinton, in short, remains a proponent of bread-and-circuses liberalism, not a critic of corporate power or structural economic inequality. Sanders hasn't pushed her to the left. At best, he has driven her to say weird things in public.

Sanders is a true believer in economic justice who possesses the ability to project integrity on the stump. But a 74-year-old white guy from Vermont is not what the populist wing of the Democratic Party wanted to put forward as its standard-bearer in 2016. Sanders is just the guy who was willing to step up when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) didn't run.

His campaign is a perpetual administrative debacle. He didn't have foreign policy advisers until, uh, March, kind of? He dismissed his director of Jewish outreach in mid-April for publicly expressing Sanders' own views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His voting record on guns has several breaks with the Democratic electorate. Every time he calls for Clinton to release transcripts of her Goldman Sachs speeches, she points out that he hasn't released his tax returns. It's May.

But despite all of this, Sanders gave Clinton a run for her money in a race where the entire party leadership had lined up to support her. He has pushed a nationwide deficit of more than 50 percentage points into a close race. And he has done it without taking corporate money.

That is the core achievement of the Sanders insurgency, and it is much more significant than making Clinton apologize for welfare reform. For decades, centrist Democrats have insisted that they cannot compete with Republicans if they do not court donations from corporate elites. Corporate-friendly Democrats routinely justify terrible votes on awful policy by pointing to fundraising. That excuse is now dead. Sanders killed it.

Sanders has demonstrated that it is in fact possible to run for president as a progressive and still wage a credible national campaign without relying on financial support from the super-rich.

That bald fact should change the way Democrats conduct policymaking. It should make members of Congress wary of future challenges from economic progressives. Clinton is politically savvy. Like most centrist Democrats, she has been acutely sensitive to the concerns of the donor class throughout her political career. The Sanders candidacy should convince her to be just as attentive to the kitchen-table concerns of Americans in the bottom 90 percent.

Some of Clinton's supporters, including liberal economist Brad DeLong, argue that Clinton should consolidate the party's base by lying to Sanders backers until the election, and then "gleefully and comprehensively trash" them after victory in November. [Update: DeLong says he didn't advocate deception, but rather wants Clinton supporters to hold off on attacks until after the election. He supports an eventual comeuppance for "people to be named later" who peddled "Guevarista fantasies" and engaged in "Comintern-scale lying."]

This strategy would put the future of the Democratic Party in grave jeopardy. Severe economic inequality has clearly rocked the American electorate. Waving this fact away to punish intraparty enemies will not change the underlying economic conditions that have buoyed both Sanders and Republican candidate Donald Trump. And the demographic data could not be starker. Sanders has simply crushed Clinton among voters under 30. A majority of all millennials -- not just those who identify with the Democratic Party -- now do not even support capitalism. And after coming of professional age during the Great Recession, who can blame them?

For all his democratic socialist branding, Sanders is a pretty conventional New Dealer -- the kind of politician who dominated the Democratic Party for most of the 20th century. And the success of his populist message, particularly with young people, shows where the party is heading, whether its leaders like it or not. 

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