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Bernie Sanders didn’t win any larger argument

To which I can only say: If this is what it looks like to win the argument, I struggle to imagine what it would look like to lose. In any way that counts, Sanders’s vision for the party has been soundly and consistently rejected.

On the one central question facing Democrats this year — a choice between a Trump-like ideological upheaval on one hand, and a return to stability on the other — the verdict has been emphatic. Ever since the South Carolina primary, when non-Sanders Democrats were able to winnow their field enough to present voters with a mostly binary choice, Democrats in every part of the country have made clear that they’re not looking for the revolution Sanders has been prophesizing.

They’re more than happy to go back to the Obama era, when progressive government scored a string of significant if short-lived victories, and when you could wake up in the morning with a reasonable degree of confidence that the president wouldn’t do something to destabilize the world.

This idea that Sanders has somehow won, even while we all thought he was losing, seems to rest on two assertions: one, that exit polls tell us the voters actually agree with his proposal for nationalized health care; and two, that he changed the conversation to the point where all the candidates were forced to adopt his agenda.

Neither withstands much scrutiny.

Let’s be real. Exit polls are all fine and good, but votes are votes. If Democrats really sided that strongly with Sanders on the issue they routinely say is the most important in the campaign, he’d be winning.

A raft of other polls on health care will tell you that it all depends on how you ask the question. According to one conducted last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, most people who say they support Medicare-for-all also think they’d be able to keep their own insurance. (Under Sanders’s plan, they wouldn’t.)

And if you ask them to choose between building on the foundation President Barack Obama laid or a Sanders-style overhaul, a strong majority chooses the more moderate approach.

As for changing the conversation, Sanders certainly did expand the parameters of debate in the party this year, and he deserves a lot of credit for that. But even the candidates who started out embracing his health-care plan — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala D. Harris — quickly backed away when they saw how voters would react.

The party’s presumptive nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, may have tweaked some of his rhetoric in response to Sanders’s populism, but substantively he hasn’t really changed a thing. His health-care plan, with the “public option,” is essentially a version of what Obama would have preferred had he been able to pass it. On just about every other salient issue — climate change, immigration, college affordability, taxes — Biden’s agenda remains more nuanced, more realistic and more popular.

Reagan’s movement grew in intensity, colonized local parties, and came back four years later with enough force to explode the conventional wisdom and make him president.

But that’s not Sanders, by a long shot. His following certainly got louder after his 2016 defeat by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but its political momentum mostly waned. The Democratic challengers who took back suburban districts from Republicans in 2018 were exclusively moderate.

And in his second run for the nomination, Sanders has performed not better but worse, failing to turn out the huge numbers of younger voters he predicted. In fact, you could say Sanders’s trajectory is the exact opposite of Reagan’s; while much of the media (me included) assumed he and Warren spoke for an ascendant wing of the party during the Trump years, it turns out the uprising was more limited than we thought.

Sure, Biden should say all the right things to unite his party. Sure, he’ll be willing to give some things away in the party platform, which has about as much influence on governing as I do on the Yankees’ lineup.

But hard as this may be for some millennials to accept, there’s only one winner here. Sanders doesn’t get a participation trophy.

The only thing he’s owed is a chance to exit with grace.

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