For months now, Bernie Sanders and the other white-haired gentleman on the campaign trail, Bill Clinton, have feuded over how closely the future of the Democratic Party will resemble its past.
They have disagreed over trade and crime policies pushed by Clinton, and healthcare and college tuition policies pursued by Sanders.
They have fought over whether the party’s turn to the center under Clinton was motivated by survival or was a breach of principle, just as they have disagreed over some of Sanders’ efforts to push Democrats to the left this campaign season.
But as both men coursed across Southern California over the weekend, something new was evident, something that seemed, perhaps temporarily, like detente.
Gone were some of Sanders’ harshest condemnations of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, and Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House.
At times they appeared to be singing from the same sheet music, particularly when it came to the threat both said was posed by presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“What is in my view our strength and what is literally unique among major countries around the world is our diversity,” Sanders told thousands of supporters Sunday at Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, in northern San Diego County. “The fact that right now, in this beautiful stadium, I would guess there are people who come from more than 100 countries all over the world.… We come from every part of the world; that is our strength. And we will not allow anybody, any Trump or anyone else, to divide us up.”
And from Bill Clinton on Saturday afternoon at Ganesha High School in Pomona:
“If you look around this crowd, you represent one vision of America’s future,” he said. “All of your diversity, from every continent, dozens of countries, believing that we can live here together as one.… We all can honor our diversity. Because we believe our common humanity is more important.”
Each man appeared to be pulling his punches this weekend in deference to the fraught period of the Democratic presidential primary.
Hillary Clinton, whose only campaign appearance over the weekend came in Florida, is anxious to finish up the primary season in order to focus completely on Trump, as he is on her. But she cannot appear to be pushing Sanders out of the race lest she dramatically complicate Democratic unity efforts.
Sanders is pushing for victories in California and other states’ primaries on June 7 to maximize his leverage during the summer convention. But he cannot level so much criticism at Clinton that he’s blamed in the event of a Trump victory in November.
It is something of an oddity that two men well into their senior years — Clinton is 69 and Sanders is 74 — are so prominently involved as the Democratic Party tries to frame its future. But it is not surprising given the roles they played in the party’s successive ideological swings.
Clinton’s Democratic Party was forced to the right in the 1990s after a succession of woeful showings in presidential contests — five losses in six White House races before his two wins — in a country more conservative in many ways than today’s.
Sanders has operated as an exceptionally liberal politician for his entire career, and from an atypical state. But he has had the great good luck — or foresight — to launch a presidential campaign that could capitalize on the rapid move by Democrats toward the left. In many ways, his success has been driven by opposition to positions taken by the Clintons and President Obama as well.
Sanders seemed to serve notice in recent days that he intends a full battle against the Democratic establishment, regardless of whether he strikes enough lightning to become the party nominee.
His anti-party thrust began Tuesday in Carson, when he angrily denounced national Democrats and demanded that they open the party structure to his supporters, who he suggested are far more equipped to seek the right path than conventional Democrats. Over the weekend he repeated that demand in less dramatic fashion.
But the presence of that line of argument was less notable than the absence of something else: his routine denunciations of Hillary Clinton.
At a rally Saturday night in National City and on Sunday in Vista, he gave her a pass on most of the criticism he’s regularly leveled about her $225,000 speeches to Wall Street, omitting a lengthy bout of mocking about how, for that price, the private speeches must have been “Shakespearean.”
In Vista, he made a one-paragraph reference to her choice to allow super PACs to raise money for her benefit, and that she’d received donations from Wall Street employees. But that too was less biting than what Sanders has said in the past.
And there were other omissions, at those events and in a Sunday night appearance in Irvine. When he raised the issue of the minimum wage, he did not mention Clinton’s opposition to the $15-an-hour national rate that he supports.
Similarly, when he mentioned the Iraq war, he did not cite Clinton’s vote for it, as he has throughout the campaign. And when he stated his objections to trade agreements, he did not mention Clinton’s past support for some deals. His discussion of new criminal justice measures left aside his earlier mentions of the 1994 crime bill supported by both Clintons.
Taken together, the omissions covered territory that formed the bulk of Sanders’ rhetoric in states like Michigan, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania, among others, that voted earlier in the nomination season.
Bill Clinton, for his part, seemed to go out of his way to lessen criticism of Sanders.
His main target was Trump, whom he repeatedly described as wanting to take America back to an era that may have been good for Trump but not for women or minorities.
He didn’t elaborately fillet Sanders’ policy priorities as he had earlier in the campaign. And he took the time to genuflect to the economically needy across the nation who have been one of Sanders’ bases of support.
“There is a legitimacy to the anger of the abandoned middle-aged white working force,” he said. “A lot of these people are dying of a broken heart because we left them behind on the economic battlefield.”
His wife, he said, has made it clear “we are not going to leave anybody behind; we are going back for them.”
Clinton did not overtly apologize for or defend his two administrations and the positions that have drawn the ire of Sanders and his followers.
But on Saturday morning in Chula Vista, before hundreds of delighted fans, he was also not above reminding voters that his tenure had its successes.
“This election is being fueled by the anger of people who feel left out,” he said, aping one of Sanders’ key thrusts.
And, with a bit of dramatic timing, then he added that one of those groups of people were “working-class Americans who haven’t gotten a pay raise — well, many of them since the day I left office.”
Both Clinton and Sanders are difficult to predict; each has the capacity to neatly follow a more muted path and then, without warning, take off for more treacherous ground.
But the suggestion over the weekend in California was that something of an agreement might have been reached between the two, either by plan or instinct: We’ll agree that Donald Trump should not be president. And as for the other stuff, we’ll just not talk about it as much anymore.