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Lessons from ’76


In 1976, I spent my final semester of college traveling to Nebraska, Oregon, and California in support of Senator Frank Church’s bid for President. I believed that, despite his late entry into the race, Church could beat the peanut farmer from Georgia who had momentum but lacked Church’s profound understanding of foreign affairs, depth of experience on domestic issues, and inspirational vision for our country’s future.

En route home to Idaho from the California primary, I was heartsick to learn from a static-filled radio that Jimmy Carter had garnered the delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination. How was this possible? How could my fellow Democrats not see what I saw – that Church was a far superior choice? And I wept.

I find myself reflecting on that experience now that it has become apparent that Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee, and that Bernie Sanders’ tenacious campaign has, for all practical intents and purposes, come to an end. It will not be easy for Senator Sanders, or many of his supporters, to accept that Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Those supporting Bernie don’t just support a person, they passionately support his stands on both substantive and process issues, and many will be more than disappointed, they will be devastated or angry, or both. Many will be reluctant to embrace Joe Biden. That is human nature. It is extremely difficult to summon enthusiasm for the person who prevailed against your champion – the person who inspired you to engage and gave you reason to believe that profound change was possible – when you are grieving.

Many, if not most, of Senator Sanders’ supporters will ultimately get behind Joe Biden because he is so much closer to Bernie on the issues than Trump will ever be; and their commitment to issues, which motivated their passion for Bernie’s candidacy in the first place, will ultimately prevail. After more than three years of Trump’s failed presidency, they know the incumbent to be an existential threat to our nation. But they need time. And they need Biden and his supporters to reach out to them.

Eventually, we trust, they will reach back.

As we give Bernie’s supporters the time they need to grieve and realign, we must beware of those – in Russia and here at home – who see dividing progressives as their path to re-electing Trump. Some purported “Bernie supporters” who appear to vilify Biden are not, in fact, Bernie supporters at all but Trump trolls in disguise who want nothing more than to pit Democrats against each other and prevent any healing.

Likewise, I hope Bernie supporters will consider that Trump trolls will also be hard at work parading as Biden supporters. They will appear to diminish Bernie’s effort, or gloat, or say hurtful things on social media, or elsewhere. They, too, seek to divide and conquer. Almost every true Biden supporter I know respects Bernie Sanders – his effort and that of his supporters – and they know better than to be smug, or dismissive.

Healing is possible, but it takes time. I know. I eventually became enthusiastic about the peanut farmer from Georgia, and he got elected. But I still thought Idaho’s Frank Church would have made a better president.

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