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Politics

Sanders is defiant and unpredictable as his revolution reaches a crossroads

Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver
Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, speaks during a news conference at campaign headquarters in Washington on Friday.
(Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency)

In these final days of Bernie Sanders’ bid for the presidency, the defiant insurgent has been at his least predictable, shifting continuously from plotting to overturn the will of voters in a convention showdown to assuring he would be a forceful voice for Democratic unity.

These two sides of the Sanders conscience are familiar, at least to obsessive watchers of cable news. They have manifested themselves day after day in the comments of the two top strategists guiding the Sanders effort. The men often come across as out of sync.

Now, Sanders is looking to both of them for advice as he plans what to do next. In a campaign famously light on insider political consultants, Sanders relies heavily on the pair: the chairman channeling his revolutionary rage and a seasoned Democratic strategist reflecting the Sanders who is a longtime player of the inside game.

Right up until Sanders’ disappointing defeat in California, the two operatives were sending mixed messages.

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Campaign chairman Jeff Weaver, a former Marine reservist who joined the Sanders revolution after meeting him at a 1980s dairy festival in Vermont, vowed that regardless of what happened in California, Sanders would keep fighting for the nomination until the roll was called at the Democratic convention in July. Tad Devine, who was a top advisor in the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John F. Kerry, said big wins this week were essential for a path forward to exist.

“We articulate things differently,” Weaver said in a separate interview. “We are obviously different human beings, but my experience is we are on the same page.”

Others in the campaign strain to explain why there is no tension between the men. They say the contradictions embody how conflicted Sanders himself is over where to take his movement.

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“We are all haunted by the ghost of Ralph Nader, as is Bernie,” said Ben Tulchin, the campaign’s pollster. “He has no desire to see a right-wing Republican get elected. I don’t think any of us would be here if he was running as a third-party candidate. The point is to have a debate within the Democratic Party.”

Sanders and his advisors complain that the points they scored in that debate are not registering with the Clinton campaign and the party establishment. They resent the long-running pressure that has been put on Sanders to step aside, starting back in March, when most states had not yet voted. Even if a Sanders win was unlikely, they say, his staying in the race drew masses of voters who otherwise would not have been engaged – and Clinton needs all of them in November.  

On Thursday, Sanders will meet in Washington with President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, both of whom are eager to see Sanders step out of the race, perhaps even at the rally the Vermonter has planned in the city Thursday night. 

Yet the campaign is hardly feeling a welcome embrace from the party. Just a few weeks ago at a joint presentation to state party chairs by top officials from the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, one of the chairs attending accused Sanders backers of turning Nevada’s nominating convention into “Lord of the Flies.”

To Sanders’ team, it was yet another sign of disrespect, and one more reason not to bow out. The demands the campaign has begun to make of the party that are getting the most attention involve sweeping policy changes in the platform, such as calls for a universal healthcare system and tuition-free public college. But it is Clinton’s willingness to bend on party rules and appointments, issues that may seem small ball to the average voter, that may matter more to the Sanders team.

Sanders campaign officials are demanding changes to the nominating process that would ease the headwinds against organic movements like theirs. They find it bewildering that the party’s rules committee can be headed by two of the most unrelenting critics of Sanders, former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and they want a change.

Weaver is the public face of this resentment with the party. He is a regular presence on CNN and MSNBC, where his skillful, unrelenting attacks of rivals can come across as off-script in a campaign that bills itself as above all that.

When MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was badgering Weaver a few days ago about Sanders’ refusal to release more of his tax returns, Weaver accused Matthews and his wife of hiding their own taxes from the public when she ran for Congress. “I don’t know if you are the one in a position to be talking about tax returns,” Weaver said.

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Matthews recoiled. Devine did not go there when he was grilled by the MSNBC host on the same subject.

Asked whether he’s ever been advised by the boss to tone it down, Weaver was surprised by the question. “Bernie Sanders is a hands-on guy,” he said. “He reads all these transcripts. If I was ahead of the candidate, I would have heard about it.”

Weaver has spent so much time with Sanders that he is practically a family member. Sanders hired him as a driver after the two met in the 1980s. Weaver calculated at one point that he has spent the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of hours shuttling Sanders around. “It gives you a special relationship with someone when you spend that amount of time with them,” he said. Weaver eventually worked his way up to become chief of staff in Sanders’ Senate office, before leaving politics for a spell to run a comic book store. He came back to run the presidential campaign.

Democrats alarmed by the prospect of Sanders extending his fight with Clinton until the convention see Devine as their best hope of talking the candidate out of it. The master image-maker has been crucial to the campaign’s success, harnessing the momentum Sanders built at his rallies into a focused messaging campaign that resonated far beyond anybody’s expectations.

One Democratic strategist who has worked with both men and is not currently affiliated with a presidential campaign called Devine the “voice of reason in the camp about the best path forward.”

Though others say it is not up to Weaver or Devine to persuade Sanders. That, they say, should be Hillary Clinton’s job.

“The Clinton campaign should be asking, ‘How do we get these people with us?’” said Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, a Sanders backer. “It is incumbent on her campaign to address the concerns being raised. If she wants to be the leader of the whole friggin’ world, she better be able to figure out this piece. She is going to be facing much bigger problems than pulling this party together.”

Halper reported from Washington and Lee from Los Angeles.

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Twitter: @evanhalper, @kurtisalee

 

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