In hindsight, backers of Sanders lament what might have been

New York Times News Service

Even to skeptics, the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders has often appeared less quixotic with the benefit of hindsight.

If Sanders had only edged Hillary Clinton in Iowa — and not the other way around — before winning a blowout in New Hampshire, perhaps things would have been different.

If he had only attacked Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, instead of offering her a reprieve, some supporters lamented, perhaps things would have been different.

And now, as Clinton contends with daily disclosures from the hacked messages of top campaign aides — missives that have reinforced the central progressive criticisms of her bid, including her coziness with Wall Street — some of Sanders’ admirers have been compelled to consider again what might have been.

With a couple of breaks and more fortunate timing, many of them believe, the rumpled socialist from Vermont really, truly could have been president.

FILE-- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at Hillary Clinton's campaign event at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., Sept. 28, 2016. With a couple of breaks and more fortunate timing, many of the Vermont senatorÕs supporters believe that he really, truly could have been president. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

“I think they should have put the damn emails out before the primaries were over,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, a union that campaigned heavily for Sanders. “Bernie could have won the election, and that’s the most irritating and painful thing. It would have made a world of difference.

“Now we are going to have a dynamic status quo,” DeMoro predicted. “It’s going to look like change. But it’s not change.”

Clinton: Not all Sanders supporters believe an earlier release would have altered history.The emails — disseminated by WikiLeaks from the account of John D. Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, who has attributed the hack to Russian intelligence officials — have created a relatively modest headache for Clinton as she nears Election Day, providing occasional fodder for Donald Trump as Democrats condemn the apparent foreign interference in a U.S. election.

But the content of the messages, while a measure short of astonishing so far, almost certainly could have upended a primary campaign premised largely on Clinton’s place in an increasingly progressive and populist Democratic Party.

In excerpts from paid speeches to financial institutions and corporate audiences, Clinton embraced unfettered international trade and offered praise for a budget-balancing plan that would have required cuts to Social Security. She spoke of the need for “a public and a private position” on politically sensitive issues. And she allowed that her family’s growing wealth had left her “kind of far removed” from the experience of the middle class.

“I feel like I’m channeling Captain Renault from ‘Casablanca,'” said Jonathan Tasini, a former union leader who challenged Clinton in her Senate primary in New York in 2006. “I’m shocked — shocked! — that Hillary Clinton has a close relationship with Wall Street.”

It is a familiar, if still painful, sensation for Sanders backers, even as most of his voters drift toward Clinton, some more haltingly than others.

Backers: For at least a handful, the emails have especially rankled given the seeming free fall of Trump, which has bolstered their view that Sanders’ proudly left-wing politics would not have precluded victory in the general election.

On the heels of leaked emails over the summer from the Democratic National Committee, which suggested favoritism toward Clinton among party leaders, and persistent complaints that Sanders’ bid was not taken seriously enough from the start, Sanders allies say the latest revelations have only heightened tensions that are likely to persist if Clinton is elected.

“There is still this real disconnect between her and working people. That’s very difficult to see,” Winnie Wong, a founder of People for Bernie, a group of Sanders supporters, said of Clinton. “The people really have to get together and make sure some of these agenda items on the platform become a reality.”

DeMoro, of the nurses’ union, expressed outrage over an email sent to Podesta by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who vowed to combat the nurses’ “high and mighty sanctimonious conduct.” (Podesta replied, “Thanks.”)

“We are going to have to fight and organize like we would against a Republican, if the emails ring true,” DeMoro said.

And Nina Turner, a former state senator from Ohio who campaigned hard for Sanders — and who has not endorsed Clinton — was especially troubled by an email that she said seemed filled with vindictiveness. In it, two longtime Clinton supporters wrote to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who resigned her position at the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sanders, and told Gabbard they would no longer raise money for her.

“It tells me they are going to be gunning if I dare to run for anything else,” Turner said. “Here you have a very good public servant in Hawaii that went with her heart, and what she gets are threats by the moneyed machine.”

Robert B. Reich, a secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton who supported Sanders in the primary, said that perhaps the most concerning message in the Podesta files came in October 2008, from Michael B. Froman, a former Citigroup executive who now serves as a U.S. trade representative. Under the subject line “Lists,” Froman offered a collection of prospective Cabinet members, weeks before President Barack Obama’s election. Many on the list were later named to the very posts he suggested.

Hillary Clinton boards her campaign plane for a flight to Las Vegas in White Plains, N.Y., Oct. 18, 2016. With a couple of breaks and more fortunate timing, many of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) supporters believe that he really, truly could have been president. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

If that history is any guide, Reich said, “The concern is that personnel decisions are already being made, and that Wall Street has a seat at the table.”

Campaign: On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has insisted that she is fully committed to progressive policies, frequently trumpeting a college tuition plan that absorbed elements of Sanders’, among other agenda items.

And Sanders himself has suppressed any latent frustrations, continuing to campaign aggressively for Clinton and declining to dwell on the emails.

“The job of the progressive movement now is to look forward, not backward,” he said in a statement after the speech excerpts were revealed. “No matter what Secretary Clinton may have said years ago behind closed doors, what’s important today is that millions of people stand up and demand that the Democratic Party implement the most progressive platform in the history of our country.”

Some supporters, too, have cast doubt on whether the emails would have affected Sanders’ chances had they surfaced before the primaries.

Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party, which supported Sanders and has since endorsed Clinton, said the emails would have been unlikely to dent Clinton’s support among the black voters who helped lift her to the Democratic nomination.

“Hillary’s firewall was based above all on strong support from African-American leaders and voters, and they weren’t in the dark about her relationships on Wall Street,” Cantor said. “Bernie did something incredible that will have long-lasting effects, but Clinton won fair and square.”