By Megan McArdle, Bloomberg View
Editor’s note: Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Capitol Report or the Bloomberg editorial board.
There is something anticlimactic about the news that Bernie Sanders has finally endorsed Hillary Clinton, like finding out that some young Hollywood couple has tremulously announced their mindful separation. We expected nothing else, so it is tempting to respond “What on earth took you so long?”
The answer is that with the announcement of the Democratic Party platform, Sanders has gotten everything that he could reasonably have expected, and it is now time to hang up his spurs and turn to the serious business of getting Clinton elected. All of the speculation about whether Sanders was going to take his ball and go home, so useful for filling column inches, can now thankfully be put to rest. Sanders has issued a full-throated endorsement of Clinton, and I expect that he will campaign vigorously for her come fall.
The question, of course, is whether his supporters will follow him to the ballot box. They have been passionate in their vilification of her as a creature of the establishment, a soulless sellout, hopelessly compromised by her connections to everything from Goldman Sachs to her husband’s welfare reform, and interested only in obtaining power for its own sake, rather than in service of the revolution. How can they turn around now and vote for her?
My answer is “pretty easily.” Back in 2008, when it became clear that she was not, as expected, going to secure the nomination of her party, there was a lot of talk about Clinton’s followers turning into PUMA’s. This was a four-word acronym, the first three words of which were “Party Unity My…” After seeing what they felt to be the rightful nominee pushed aside in favor of an inexperienced upstart, they threatened to stay home, or even cast a third-party vote. Such a party split, it was occasionally suggested by people who had nothing better to do, might even cost the Democrats the election.
As you may recall, no such split occurred. The PUMAs vented furiously for a little bit, then they docilely went to the nearest school gymnasium and pulled the lever for Barack Obama. I expect that the same pattern will hold this time around. Oh, I’m sure that someone, somewhere, will cast an angry protest vote for the Green Party. Even multiple someones. Some other angry former voters will join the majority of Americans who do not vote. But most of those who felt the Bern are going to go vote for Clinton.
Why? Well, for one thing, because that’s what people do. Politics is a rich broth of personal self-interest, ideology and tribal loyalty. For all of these reasons, most of the folks who voted for Sanders in primaries will want to see their team win in November, even if they think their favorite player has been unjustly benched. Every four years, people claim to see no difference between the center-right and center-left candidates that our system routinely nominates, and every four years, when Election Day rolls around, they contemplate the prospect of the other team winning and decide that maybe there is some small difference after all.
The difference is not as small as usual this year, because the other ticket is likely to feature Donald Trump. All major party presidential candidates are regarded by the opposition with rather more visceral hatred than is actually called for by their record or public pronouncements. (A foreigner following the election opinionizing in 2012 would have thought that the Republican Party had just nominated a tycoon so wantonly cruel that his main goal in seeking the presidency was to slaughter every poor person in the country so that he could use their bodies as mulch on his diamond farms. And also that he abused puppies.)
Trump, however, seems to have taken the opposition’s ridiculous hyperbole as an instruction manual. Such rudimentary policy ideas as he possesses are probably closer to those of the average Democratic voter than could be said of any other Republican candidate of the last 40 years. But he is crudely nationalistic, bombastically anti-immigration, and almost obsequiously solicitous of the tender feelings of white supremacists.
Trump is the fever-dream Republican nominee made flesh. The professionals will disdain him because he proudly displays an utter unfamiliarity with the basics of every policy area he might be expected to tackle as president; the pacifists will quake in fear of his impulsivity and penchant for confrontation; minority groups will fear for their well-being; and women will abhor his treatment of numerous female public figures. All those groups are going to be down at the ballot box making sure that he doesn’t get elected.
You have only to look at the Sanders endorsement to see how this will play in November. Trump’s name comes up a lot. Why? Because Sanders knows that even if the Sanders loyalists are reluctant to rally for Clinton, they will be very motivated to rally against Trump.
The same will hold on the Republican side, of course, to some extent. Most of the party will rally behind him, because — well, go team. But some Republicans won’t, and that will probably be enough to cost the party the election.
It is telling that as Sanders was negotiating the platform and warmly endorsing his opponent, prominent Republicans across the country were coming up with increasingly thin excuses to avoid Cleveland next week. I half-expect to hear by the end of the week that Reince Priebus has a powder-room grout emergency that will sadly prevent his attendance, and Ted Cruz has to stay home to wash his hair. They’re not doing this because they’re vacuous insiders who can’t bear to see the establishment agenda thwarted. They’re doing this because they’re terrified of what voters will do when their opponents start running attack ads featuring them praising Trump.
Party unity, in other words, does have limits. Do “gave speeches at Goldman Sachs” and “proposes health care policies that aren’t quite what I’d like” rise to that point? Not even close. However, “praised Saddam Hussein” and “attacked an American judge for being Mexican” sure might. As long as Clinton plays within those limits, even Bernie fans will keep rooting for her.