New Orleans Win, lose, or draw in the final balloting for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders may have finally paid off the big bets that the Communications Workers Union and a precious few others made in bucking the Democratic Party establishment and the AFL-CIO and doubling down on what initially seemed a quixotic campaign. His sturdy win in Michigan over Hillary Clinton not only keeps him in the contest, but changes the conversation, especially with other rust belt states like Illinois and Ohio looming large in coming days.
Why? Sanders engineered his victory by going deep on Michigan and hitting hard on trade and jobs and in the process expanded his support to struggling white workers and not just liberals and college towns. Progressives already owed Sanders a debt for defanging socialism and proudly advocating for more egalitarian and distributive economic policy as a driving force in our politics. Workers and some unions may have been getting their feet wet with some of these arguments by recognizing that Sanders’ voting and legislative record for worker issues was outstanding, but too often were still seduced by the neoliberal, pro-business Democratic consensus originally forged by Clinton the First and steadily maintained particularly in the first six years of the Obama presidency. Sanders ballot box proof that being a cheerleader for globalization carries a political price is worth its weight in gold. American workers and their families did pay with their jobs, stagnant wages, and reduced living standards, making the exchange painful and bearing the brunt without sufficient protection. Clinton was already dancing around on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement essentially saying she’ll take another look, largely because she desperately needs Obama’s full-throated and implicit support to win the nomination, but Sanders may have finally forced her to fully recalibrate her economic positions and program.
And, if Hillary Clinton is not understanding the upset in Michigan, surely her political advisors have been briefing her that if she gets to the “big game” against Trump, the trade drum is one he has been steadily beating helping him run his opponents ragged as he harvests huge support from working class white voters. Putting on a preacher’s collar and screaming about social issues has gotten Texas Senator Cruz and some of the rest of the Republican lot some votes and victories, but as Donald Trump is proving it’s still “the economy, stupid,” as James Carville preached decades ago.
Change is going to have to come in the Democratic Party establishment consensus on economics and workers, and Hillary Clinton is going to have to finally learn not just how to say the words, but how to make people believe that she really means them. Sanders can’t help her with that, but he’s shown her in Michigan that it matters.