Sanders, the argument went, was the only candidate who could better appeal to white, working-class Democrats who felt shafted by NAFTA and other trade deals.
Clinton, whether because she has actually moved toward more populist economic policies or simply has done a better job at dressing up her centrist pragmatism -- appears to have burst Sanders' bubble.
Hillary Clinton can now only be said to be a "regional candidate" insofar as the entirety of the United States constitutes a region.
At this stage, it now looks like Bernie Sanders has a very narrow path -- if one exists at all -- to winning the delegates necessary to be the Democratic nominee. And so three essential points now bear making.
Sanders has changed the campaign for the better
First, Hillary Clinton may be winning the Democratic nomination, but that doesn't mean Bernie Sanders has lost. Without a doubt, his candidacy has changed this campaign for the better.
During the last CNN Democratic debate, held in Flint, Michigan, Clinton and Sanders spoke about issues of racial bias and structural racism for almost an hour, maybe more.
To my recollection, that's unheard of from presidential candidates in a party that has largely taken the African American vote for granted. And then, after that, they debated trade policy for 20 minutes or so, with Sanders pushing Clinton to account for her past support of disastrous deals such as NAFTA.
I like to think that Hillary Clinton would have come out against the TPP trade deal either way, but whether on that or so many other points, Sanders clearly forced Clinton to explain to the American people how she would break from the triangulating centrism her last name and her own Wall Street-cozy record have come to represent.
We still don't know what Clinton said in her paid speeches to big banks, but thanks to Bernie Sanders, we can be darn sure Clinton will think twice about whatever she says to and about Wall Street going forward.
Second, the Democratic Party -- and democracy in general -- is far stronger thanks to the incredible grassroots groundswell of engagement and passion that has driven Bernie Sanders' campaign. I have said as much before: Barack Obama's 2008 race was a campaign masquerading as a movement; Bernie Sanders' race was truly a movement masquerading as a campaign.
The real agenda was never to elect a candidate. It was, as Sanders himself has said so many times, to seed a revolution.
And whether through millions of small-dollar donations that added up to rival the biggest checks from the biggest donors to the biggest super PACS, or in doggedly making economic inequality and the broken political system core issues of the Democratic platform, the Bernie Sanders movement has and will continue to force a Democratic Party long cowed by centrist blue dogs to return to the populist beating heart of the party's progressive wing.
It's no surprise that young voters in particular treat the likes of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren like rock stars. This is the future of the Democratic Party, and incidentally, reflects a populist agenda that resonates across party lines, too. And we can anticipate, if Sanders indeed stays in the race through the convention as he has promised, the progressive wing will continue to raise its voice and concerns -- and flex its muscle especially around Clinton's vice presidential choice.
Clinton becoming a better candidate
And third, despite the fact that prominent Democrats argued
the best thing for the party was for Hillary to run unopposed in the primary or else defeat Sanders quickly, it's clear that Sanders has made Clinton a better candidate.
He has tested out lines of attack for which she needed practice. He pushed her to support policies and reasoning that will help her win over the Democratic left. And he forced her to actively and authentically reach out to voters of color, who will need to turn out with strength and loyalty to defeat Donald Trump in November.
As Tuesday's election results rolled in, some seemed to still be trivializing the very point of the primary. After noting that Clinton had won Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg tweeted
, "Can we put a stop to all of this?"
But all this is democracy. A democracy through which progressive Democrats finally articulated their frustration with party orthodoxy that always seems to prefer pragmatism over principle and that takes voters of color and women voters for granted all too often.
A democracy in which real substantive positions and differences were debated and voters were engaged. A democracy not based on calling names but articulating a vision. A democracy of, by and for the people -- the voters -- not the big banks and big donors.
Can we put a stop to all of that?
I hope not.