Joe Biden understands something about the Democratic Party and its future that his fellow partisans would do well to consider. “I don’t think any Democrat’s ever won saying, ‘We can’t think that big—we ought to really downsize here because it’s not realistic,’” the vice president told The New York Times in April. “C’mon man, this is the Democratic Party! I’m not part of the party that says, ‘Well, we can’t do it.’” Mocking Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Bernie Sanders for proposing bold reforms, Biden dismissed the politics of lowered expectations. “I like the idea of saying, ‘We can do much more,’ because we can,” he declared, leading the Times to observe that, while Biden wasn’t making an endorsement, “He’ll take Mr. Sanders’s aspirational approach over Mrs. Clinton’s caution any day.”
Unwittingly or not, Biden made an even better case than Sanders has for taking his insurgent campaign all the way to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. If the party is going to run in 2016 on a “do much more” agenda—as opposed to triangulating around the center—the Vermont senator’s supporters and like-minded Democrats, including Clinton’s progressive backers, will have to force the issue. Taking the Sanders insurgency to the convention is the paramount vehicle for placing demands that are ideological and, as Biden’s comments suggest, also strategic. That’s one reason why Sanders promised in a statement on April 26 to go to the convention with “as many delegates as possible to fight for a progressive party platform”—despite the fact that Clinton’s delegate advantage now all but guarantees that she will win the nomination.
What Sanders is proposing is a necessary quest—and a realistic one. Already, he is better positioned than any recent insurgent challenger to engage in rules and platform debates, as well as in dialogues about everything from the vice-presidential nomination to the character of the fall campaign. As veteran political analyst Rhodes Cook noted in a survey prepared for The Atlantic, by mid-April, Sanders had exceeded the overall vote totals and percentages of Howard Dean in 2004, Jesse Jackson in 1988, Gary Hart in 1984, and Ted Kennedy in 1980, among others. (While Barack Obama’s 2008 challenge to Clinton began as something of an insurgency, he eventually ran with the solid support of key party leaders like Kennedy.) By the time the District of Columbia votes on June 14, Sanders will have more pledged delegates than any challenger seeking to influence a national convention and its nominee since the party began to democratize its nominating process following the disastrous, boss-dominated convention of 1968.
This new reality has Clinton supporters fretting about the prospect of a chaotic convention that could expose divisions within the party when it should be uniting for what increasing looks like a fall fight against Donald Trump. But a muscular appearance by Sanders and his delegates at the convention doesn’t have to lead to bitterness. Historically, contested conventions—not carefully choreographed coronations—have led parties and their nominees to take more audacious positions and to excite broader electoral coalitions.