There’s no strategist pulling the strings, and no collection of burn-it-all-down aides egging him on. At the heart of the rage against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, the campaign aides closest to him say, is Bernie Sanders.
It was the Vermont senator who personally rewrote his campaign manager’s shorter statement after the chaos at the Nevada state party convention and blamed the political establishment for inciting the violence.
He was the one who made the choice to go after Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz after his wife read him a transcript of her blasting him on television.
He chose the knife fight over calling Clinton unqualified, which aides blame for pulling the bottom out of any hopes they had of winning in New York and their last real chance of turning a losing primary run around.
And when Jimmy Kimmel’s producers asked Sanders’ campaign for a question to ask Donald Trump, Sanders himself wrote the one challenging the Republican nominee to a debate.
There are many divisions within the Sanders campaign—between the dead-enders and the work-it-out crowds, between the younger aides who think he got off message while the consultants got rich and obsessed with Beltway-style super delegate math, and between the more experienced staffers who think the kids got way too high on their sense of the difference between a movement and an actual campaign.
But more than any of them, Sanders is himself filled with resentment, on edge, feeling like he gets no respect — all while holding on in his head to the enticing but remote chance that Clinton may be indicted before the convention.
Campaign manager Jeff Weaver, who’s been enjoying himself in near constant TV appearances, and the candidate’s wife Jane Sanders, are fully on board. But convinced since his surprise Michigan win that he could actually win the nomination, Sanders has been on email and the phone, directing elements of the campaign right down to his city-by-city schedule in California. He wants it. He thinks it should be his.
“Bernie’s been at the helm of this campaign from the beginning,” said Weaver, “and the overall message of this campaign and the direction of the campaign and the strategy, has been driven by Bernie.”
Convinced as Sanders is that he’s realizing his lifelong dream of being the catalyst for remaking American politics—aides say he takes credit for a Harvard Kennedy School study in April showing young people getting more liberal, and he takes personal offense every time Clinton just dismisses the possibility of picking him as her running mate—his guiding principle under attack has basically boiled down to a feeling that multiple aides sum up as: “Screw me? No, screw you.”
“I don’t know who advised him that this was the right route to take, but we are now actively destroying what Bernie worked so hard to build over the last year just to pick up two fucking delegates in a state he lost,” rapid response director Mike Casca complained to Weaver in an internal campaign email obtained by POLITICO.
“Thank you for your views. I’ll relay them to the senator, as he is driving this train,” Weaver wrote back.
In the run-up to the California primary, the big strategic question was how much to modulate the tone of the letter to superdelegates that he's been preparing to send out Wednesday, building on the case that Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Sen. Paul Kirk and former Communication Workers of America president Larry Cohen have been making to fellow super delegates over the phone for weeks about polls and other factors that would make Sanders the more competitive general election candidate.
This isn’t about what’s good for the Democratic Party in his mind, but about what he thinks is good for advancing the agenda that he’s been pushing since before he got elected mayor of Burlington.
Sanders owns nearly every major decision, right down to the bills. A conversation with former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin about getting left in personal debt from his own 1992 presidential campaign has stayed at the top of Sanders’ mind.
He demanded that the campaign bank account never go under $10 million, even when that’s meant decisions Weaver and campaign architect Tad Devine have protested — like making the call in the final days before Kentucky to go with digital director Kenneth Pennington’s plan to focus on data and field, instead of $300,000 to match Clinton on TV.\
Sanders ultimately lost there by just 1,924 votes.
Sanders and aides laugh at the idea that he’s damaging the party and hurting Clinton. They think they don’t get enough gratitude for how much they held back, from not targeting more Democratic members of the House and Senate who opposed him to not making more of an issue out of Clinton’s email server investigation and Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, all of which they discussed as possible lines of attack in the fall. They blame Clinton going after him on gun control for goading him into letting loose on her Goldman Sachs speeches.
“If they hadn’t started at it by really going hard at him on guns, raising a series of issues against him, that really was what led to him being much, much more aggressive than he otherwise would have been,” said Devine, the consultant who helped engineer Sanders’ plans for a protest candidacy into a real campaign (and convinced him to run as a Democrat).
Since he finished approving the ads for California not long after the Kentucky strategy spat, Devine has been back home in Rhode Island, noticeably missing from cable news as a surrogate but still regularly in touch with Sanders. Devine, who’s been more anxious about what an endgame looks like, says he hasn’t heard anything from the senator that suggests he would alter his plans because of the Clinton campaign’s eagerness to have President Barack Obama endorse her and declare the primaries done.
“They would be very smart to understand that the best way to approach Bernie is not to try to push him around,” Devine said. “It’s much better if they try to cooperate with him and find common ground. They should be mindful of the fact that the people he’s brought into this process are new to it and they will be very suspicious of any effort to push him around.”
Aides say Sanders thinks that progressives who picked Clinton are cynical, power-chasing chickens — like Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of his most consistent allies in the Senate before endorsing Clinton and campaigning hard for her ahead of the Ohio primary. Sanders is so bitter about it that he’d be ready to nix Brown as an acceptable VP choice, if Clinton ever asked his advice on who’d be a good progressive champion.
* * *
Every time Sanders got into a knife fight, aides say, they ended up losing. But they could never stop Sanders when he got his back up.
Coming off walloping Clinton in the Wisconsin primary in April, the first internal numbers from campaign pollster Ben Tulchin showed Sanders within range in New York’s pivotal contest two weeks later. Though some senior aides say they realize now the dynamics of the state and the closed primary meant they never really had a shot, they also blame coverage of his New York Daily News interview and the blowup over calling Clinton “not qualified” for taking New York off the table.
Losing Pennsylvania the following week was another body blow, one of four losses in five states that night.
In the days following, before Sanders scored his win in Indiana that campaign aides feel no one acknowledged because it came the same night Trump locked up the Republican nomination, the calls started coming in from Democratic power brokers.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s call was part advice, part asking a favor, urging Sanders to use his now massive email list to help Democratic Senate candidates. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin was the most obvious prospect, and Reid wanted to make introductions to Iowa’s Patty Judge and North Carolina’s Deborah Ross—to help Democrats win the majority, but also to give Sanders allies in making himself the leader of the Senate progressives come next year.
Reid, according to people familiar with the conversation, ended the discussion thinking Sanders was on board. He backed Feingold. But that’s the last anyone heard.
Word got back to Reid’s team that Weaver had nixed the idea, ruling out backing anyone who hadn’t endorsed Sanders. Weaver says it’s because the Senate hopefuls had to get in line for Sanders’ support behind top backers like Gabbard and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.)—though neither has a competitive race this year.
Sanders never followed up himself.
Just before they all figured they’d see each other at the White House Correspondents Dinner, a call from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta came in to Devine, who’s seen by most in the Clinton camp as the only senior aide to Sanders whom Clinton’s staff feels is actually open to a conversation, though Weaver and Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook have checked in with each other occasionally as well.
“I’m ready to talk,” Podesta said, though, “I don’t have a peace pipe or anything.”
Devine brought the idea to Sanders.
“Do you trust him?” Sanders said, people familiar with the conversation said.
“Yeah, I do,” Devine said.
“You think we should talk to him?” Sanders asked.
“I think we should try to win California, and then we’ll talk to him,” Devine said.
Sanders: 'Defying history is what this campaign has been about'
In an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt on Tuesday, Bernie Sanders held firmly that he will continue to lobby superdelegates.
Reaching out to the Trump campaign was a different story. Devine knows campaign chairman Paul Manafort from, among other things, their collaboration on the campaign of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. According to campaign aides, the morning after Trump was on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Weaver asked Devine to give Manafort a call to see if they could actually make the debate happen. They were already fielding offers from most of the networks—including a producer for Stephen Colbert, who wanted to host the debate on his own late night show.
Manafort laughed, said it was a joke, but then again, Trump was on his plane, and he had no idea what the candidate would do. The answer turned out to be a statement killing the speculation. Manafort left a voicemail for Devine saying he’d won over Trump. Devine never called him back.
* * *
Top Sanders aides admit that it’s been weeks, if not months, since they themselves realized he wasn’t going to win, and they’ve been operating with a Trump’s-got-no-real-shot safety net. They debate whether Sanders’ role in the fall should be a full vote-for-Clinton campaign, or whether he should just campaign hard against Trump without signing up to do much for her directly.
They haven’t been able to get Sanders focused on any of that, or on the real questions about what kind of long term organization to build out of his email list. They know they’ll have their own rally in Philadelphia – outside the the convention hall—but that’s about as far as they’ve gotten.
“He wants to be in the race until the end, until the roll call vote,” Weaver said.
Aides say they’re going to discourage people from booing Wasserman Schultz, who’s emerged as public enemy number one among Sanders supporters, when she takes the stage at the convention. But they think it’s going to happen anyway.
Meanwhile, they’re looking into trying to replace the Florida congresswoman as the convention chair with Gabbard, and forceWasserman Schultz to resign as DNC chair the day after the convention.
Podesta: Clinton to speak with Sanders directly 'soon'
(By DANIEL STRAUSS)
The meetings in Philadelphia have already started, with the platform drafting committee set to have its opening session on Wednesday. The Sanders team is headed by Mark Longabaugh—Devine’s business partner, but who’s veered closer to Weaver when it comes to eagerness to headbutt. There are negotiations with the Clinton campaign and the DNC over what they’re going to force them to agree to, from speaking slots at the convention to long-term control over party operations to the order of early state voting (Aides say Sanders believes the race would have been radically different if the order were different, and more states were by themselves on the calendar instead of lumped together on super-ish Tuesdays).
“Everything is on the table,” Longabaugh said.
There’s also the issue of payback. Campaign aides say that whatever else happens, Sanders wants former Congressman Barney Frank and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy out of their spots as co-chairs of the convention rules committee. It’s become a priority fight for him.
Sanders, the aides say, believes Frank has hated him for years, but the former Massachusetts congressman’s calling him a “McCarthyite” pushed him over the edge. He never really registered who Malloy was, despite his being from a neighboring home state and his status as one of the most liberal governors in the country, but Sanders was enraged to hear the governor say he had blood on his hands for not supporting the gun manufacturer liability law.
Aides think Democrats should be grateful that he’s increased voter turnout and registration. And it’s why they assume Clinton’s campaign will humbly request he be her college campus and millennial ambassador through the fall, to keep up the rallies and the voter registration that’s given him the 45 percent of primary voters.
“When they say we’re hurting the Democratic Party,” Devine said, “we believe we’re helping it.”
That’s because Sanders is a savvier politician than almost anyone’s given him credit for. He likes that he’s been in front of almost a million people since the campaign started. But he knows that as soon as the campaign’s done, the crowds will start thinning, and he’s not going to get on television anymore. He’s certainly not running for president again.
Sanders knows the ride is about to stop—but he’s going to push it as far as he can before it does.