“This is the way the world ends,” mused the poet T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang but a whimper.” It may be said that the world of 2016 presidential nominating contests is ending with a bit of a bang and a whimper.
Six states held primaries or caucuses on the last big Tuesday (only the District of Columbia remains to vote on June 14), and the results closed out the season with an exclamation point and a question mark — for each of the remaining three candidates.
On the most obvious plane, it was Hillary Clinton’s night. She became the first woman to be the presumptive presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party.
“We’ve reached a milestone,” said Clinton, recalling how her mother was born on the day in 1919 when Congress approved the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was ratified by the states the following year, granting women the right to vote.
“Tonight’s victory,” said Clinton, “belongs to generations of women.”
Clinton won the three biggest states voting: California, New Jersey and New Mexico. She added a squeaker of a win in South Dakota as well. Bernie Sanders won the caucuses in North Dakota and the primary in Montana.
By winning most of the pledged delegates in four states, Clinton secured a majority of the pledged delegates nationwide. That’s pretty much game-over right there.
In the course of the primary season, she won the national popular vote by more than 3 million votes, won a majority of the states, won 15 of the 20 most populous states — and, yes, collected commitments from a supermajority of superdelegates, too.
With all that, Clinton could be said to have finished the race not just with a bang but with trumpet flourishes and cymbal crashes as well. This was, finally, the triumphal night Clinton had worked for and awaited over the past decade — and perhaps over several decades before that.
Yet with all the blaring celebration, a whimper was audible in the background.
Even as Clinton luxuriated in the adulation of her crowd in Brooklyn, another large and adoring throng was awaiting Bernie Sanders in an aircraft hangar in Santa Monica, Calif. The independent socialist from Vermont refused to concede and vowed to carry his cause to the convention in Philadelphia.
“The struggle continues,” Sanders said, prompting his acolytes to wave their placards and cheer.
That sea of undulating blue Bernie signs meant Sanders was ending his improbable run with a bang of his own. His audience greeted nearly every sentence he uttered with waves of roared approval. They booed when he said he had “a gracious phone call” from Clinton. They reached transports of rapture when he said he’d fight on to D.C., voting June 14, and beyond that to Philadelphia.
The concept of math was once again elided when Sanders said he knew he had a “steep path” but that he would continue climbing. This may be a way of saying politely that Sanders still sees the possibility of a Clinton indictment (related to her use of a private email server while secretary of state) in the weeks ahead, the one circumstance in which he might surpass her at the convention.
But with all this defiant energy and affirmation, even a Sanders fanatic might have sensed a whimper in his endgame performance, too. He had nursed hopes of winning four or five states on this Tuesday, including the psychologically transformative prize of California. That would have been a powerful statement at this stage of the game.
Instead, he wound up with just two sparsely populated Western states, each with as many electoral votes as Vermont.
The evening of voting results actually began hours earlier with the appearance of Donald Trump, celebrating his own set of victories in the five states that had GOP events. Trump dominated, with vote shares ranging from 67 percent to 77 percent, vanquishing opponents who had suspended their campaigns weeks ago.
It’s hard to argue with numbers like that, even against foes who have suspended their campaigns. But while Trump was banging the drum for his triumphs on Tuesday night, there was an undertone to his speech quite different from his earlier victory rallies.
On this occasion, Trump had chosen one of his golfing clubs in suburban New York and gathered an audience of a few hundred. Gone was the atmosphere of the sports arena, the aura of folk festival and being larger than life. Here, the setting seemed almost intimate by contrast, and the audience more restrained.
Notably, Trump used a teleprompter, the device favored by many politicians but previously and famously derided and mocked by Trump. Visibly uncomfortable with the device — which displays a scrolling text to the speaker — Trump mixed in frequent digressions and observations not included in his prepared remarks. Still, the usual dynamic interplay with the audience was diminished.
On Tuesday, Trump won the last five Republican events of the season and did so resoundingly — just as he has since his last rivals dropped out of the race last month. But he got less of a bang for his buck, due to the absence of competition and the stormy day his campaign had just weathered.
Trump himself may have felt constrained, at least in relative terms, by the extraordinary fallout from his criticism of a federal judge handling a fraud case against the now-defunct Trump University. The fracas began when Trump denounced an American-born judge as “a Mexican” who could not be fair to him.
Trump said in a written statement on Tuesday afternoon that his comments about U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel had been “misconstrued.” This followed stern lectures from both Speaker Paul Ryan (who called Trump’s remarks “pretty much the textbook definition of racism”) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In recent days, two Republicans — Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent on the ballot this fall, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former presidential candidate and frequent Trump critic — declared independence from the presumed nominee. The warnings from others in the GOP establishment also became more ominous.
Trump on Tuesday night made no reference to Curiel, or Trump University, or the conflicts with party leaders. That suggested at least a willingness to accommodate some of the elders and respect their advice to tone down his rhetoric. But few in the GOP seemed satisfied that Trump had left his disruptive behavior behind for good.
One more note on the bang vs. whimper front: President Obama announced he would meet Sanders on Thursday to talk about ways to move the national agenda toward the needs of working families.
Obama is widely expected to endorse Clinton at some point — perhaps very soon. But that particular rendezvous with destiny may need to wait. Obama may still see it in his interest, and that of his party, to deal with Sanders and attempt to bring him aboard the Clinton bandwagon.
Doing so would strengthen the party both before and after the convention, making it more likely Philadelphia is remembered more for its bang than for its whimper.