It’s not just Hillary Clinton. In down-ballot primaries, the candidates favored by left-wing pressure groups have not prevailed, starting with the Maryland Senate race: Progressives backed the firebrand Donna Edwards, and outside groups spent millions on her behalf, but she lost by a 15-point margin to Chris Van Hollen, a member of House Democratic leadership. An establishment nominee, Kate McGinty, also fended off anti-establishment challengers in Pennsylvania. The populist left failed to field serious primary challengers to other establishment-backed Senate candidates, with the result that the Democrats’ general-election slate across the country consists entirely of party-backed career politicians. Progressive hopes for a big primary bang now rest on Florida, where left-wing provocateur Alan Grayson is up against establishment-backed fellow Representative Patrick Murphy, a former Republican. The primary is in August.
(Interestingly, insurgent down-ballot candidates have also failed to topple incumbent or establishment candidates in Republican primaries, raising the possibility that Trump is an aberration—albeit a really big one—and 2016 is actually a pro-establishment year for both parties.)
“There is no question that the left is making a lot of noise this cycle,” Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs at the center-left think tank Third Way, told me. (Third Way has advised the Clinton campaign on policy.) “But the populist wing is not actually dominant or taking over the Democratic Party if you look at the hard evidence.”
Despite the protestations of Sanders and his supporters, Clinton is all but guaranteed to reach a majority of delegates in next week’s penultimate round of primaries. Sanders’s unexpected surge has demonstrated a rising progressive energy within the party, but progressives haven’t done what they set out to do this year: prove that a Tea Party-like revolt was simmering in the Democratic base.
Sanders may have pushed Clinton to sound more populist and to spend more time talking about income inequality. But on the economic issues that divide Clinton and Sanders, Bennett notes, Clinton has not really moved. She has declined to embrace single-payer health care, tuition-free public college for all, a $15 minimum wage (though she said she would sign it if Congress passed it, her own proposal is for $12), reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall banking restrictions, breaking up the big banks, or the expansion of Social Security. She has also declined to call for a ban on fracking. From the beginning, Clinton has insisted that inequality can be solved with reform rather than a war on Wall Street.
Clinton did come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a notable concession to progressives. But even her allies, like Bennett, do not believe she has turned against free trade: “All Democrats run for president as mild protectionists and govern as free traders,” Bennett told me, pointing to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who both campaigned against trade deals and went on to enact them.