What does Bernie Sanders want in exchange for endorsing Hillary Clinton? And what can Clinton and the Democratic Party give Sanders to get him to campaign aggressively for her in the fall, harnessing the voting power of the passionate, mostly young, white, left-wing voters who favor him?
Obviously, Sanders expects a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. Neither the Clinton camp nor the party's leadership will have a problem with that demand. But wh
at if he wants to be the vice presidential candidate on a Clinton-led ticket? That's a reach.
Sanders' "socialist" label is a liability in a general election. The Vermonter will hurt Clinton's effort to win support from political moderates, especially older voters. Sanders would also be a bridge too far for Republicans disenchanted by their party's wild primary season and the prospect of either Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz as the GOP's presidential candidate.
But if Sanders is not to be made the prospective veep, Democrats will have to find something else to give him. He has exceeded all expectations during the primary season. The depth of his support was underlined by his three strong victories in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington. And Democrats fear him mounting a third-party run along the lines of the populist campaign run by Ralph Nader in 2000 that arguably gave the White House to George W. Bush.
The heart of this troublesome political puzzle for Democrats is how to get Sanders' passionate supporters to line up behind Clinton. In early March, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found a third of the people voting for Sanders saying they "cannot see themselves voting for Hillary Clinton in November." The Nation magazine reported recently that "nearly 60,000 people have signed the 'Bernie or Bust' pledge," vowing to remain loyal to him even if Clinton wins the nomination.
President Obama is now getting involved in this escalating debate. According to The New York Times, the president privately told Texas Democrats that Sanders' continuing campaign against Clinton stalls party organizers, donors, and activists from getting started on beating the GOP in the fall campaign.
The president and leading Democrats in Congress are all but calling for Sanders to get out of the race now. The Democrats' unstated anxiety is that Clinton, while a clear winner among primary voters, does not set the campaign trail on fire. Sanders and Trump, the leading candidate for the GOP nomination, are arsonists by comparison. Sanders has continued to condemn a "corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy." Clinton's campaign is taking money from political action committees while Sanders' is not. Sanders is also casting an unfavorable light on Clinton by celebrating the "energy and excitement" of his crowds and claiming that it is because "we are telling the truth." He does not mention Clinton, but the comparison is obvious, if implicit.
Sanders' big issue is income inequality. He continues to accuse Clinton of being too close to Wall Street, further arguing that this makes it implausible that she will rein in wealthy bankers and hedge-fund managers. It is easy to see how his followers might be convinced Clinton is the no-change, establishment candidate and become permanently turned off to her.
Sanders' lack of formal connection to the Democratic Party is another part of the problem. At an Ohio town hall meeting, he admitted having considered running for president as an independent but decided to run as a Democrat because "in terms of media coverage, you have to run within the Democratic Party."
Last year, former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner (D), whose wife Huma Abedin is a top Clinton aide, publicly expressed the reservations Democratic insiders still have about Sanders.
"What exactly does he think he's doing in a Democratic presidential primary?" Weiner wrote in Business Insider last July. "Why is he asking for the nomination of a party he always avoided joining? Now he wants to not only be a member of the party but its standard bearer?"
To bring Sanders inside the camp, Democrats will have to do more than make him a TV star at the convention. They will also have to put Clinton, union organizers, and money behind his issues, creating a permanent movement inside the party for a living wage, for lower-cost college education, and a sharper critique of Wall Street.
The party is going to have to buy into Sanders if they want him to buy into them.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel. His latest book is We the People.