Senator Bernie Sanders has been sending mixed signals about how long he will continue his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Nonetheless, he evidently knows what his priority must be.
In a speech to his supporters Thursday night, the Vermonter declared that "The major task that we face in the next five months is to make certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly," adding that he will begin his role "in that process in a very short period of time." The sooner, the better.
Whatever disagreements Senator Sanders has with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, they pale in comparison to the wide gap between the humane political positions of the two Democrats and the bigoted, hate-based prejudices of the soon-to-be Republican standard-bearer. This presidential election constitutes a fight for America's soul, and Senator Sanders, with his considerable influence, has a responsibility to not just join that fight but to lead it.
That responsibility extends to Senator Sanders' many supporters. Their disappointment is understandable — as was the disappointment of supporters of Mrs. Clinton eight years ago. Clinton backers claimed the Democratic Party system was rigged against them, and Bernie backers make the same claim now, but Barack Obama won fair and square eight years ago and Mrs. Clinton won fair and square this year. She won the most votes and earned the most delegates.
The policy differences and proposals of the liberal Senator Sanders and the liberal-to-moderate Clinton are not that dramatic, and the pressure applied by the Sanders candidacy has caused Mrs. Clinton to move closer to him philosophically. The divide between the rich and the poor/middle class is at the heart of the Sanders campaign, and a President Trump would widen that gap. In good conscience, no Sanders supporter could vote for Mr. Trump, and staying home and sulking on November 8 would be childish and potentially destructive. No one should forget the Ralph Nader-fueled debacle that gave the nation President George W. Bush in 2000.
Senator Sanders plainly wants to keep his chips (delegates) to ensure his role as a player in the Democratic National Convention. He has earned that right. Entering the race as the longest of long shots, he captured 22 primaries and caucuses, energized millions of young voters and brought progressive causes to the forefront of the debate. At the convention, he can take the lead in getting rid of the presidential super-delegates who dilute the influence of voters and in fighting to shape the party platform in a progressive fashion.
Senator Sanders doesn't have to cozy up to Mrs. Clinton on the campaign trail but he does need to attack a Republican standard-bearer who opposes everything the Vermonter stands for. Mr. Trump has corrupted the soul of the Republican Party — that was seen last week when the otherwise reasonable and classy Senator John McCain blamed President Obama for the horrific gun slaughter in Orlando. Mr. Sanders' role is help prevent Mr. Trump from corrupting the soul of the nation.
Mr. Sanders' popularity could also benefit fellow senators in states where Democratic and Republican candidates are engaged in tough races. For one example, Senator Sanders' deep support in his neighbor state of New Hampshire could help Democratic senatorial candidate Governor Maggie Hassan in her challenge to Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte. The Vermont senator, a recently minted Democrat after many years as an independent, has a vested interest in the Senate fight as he could be rewarded with a key chairmanship should the Democrats move back into the majority.
Senator Sanders, however, has no higher calling than keeping Mr. Trump out of the White House, and it appears he will answer that calling. The senator's loyal backers should do so as well.