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After Michigan, the VP Games Begin

Should Biden cover a weakness or double-down on a strength?
March 10, 2020
After Michigan, the VP Games Begin
Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) and California Senator Kamala Harris (R) speak while Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders walks by after the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 2019. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

1. After Michigan

Because everyone loves a horserace, the emerging CW about the primaries today is that Bernie Sanders needs an upset win in Michigan to keep contending for the nomination.

This is incorrect.

As I’ve been saying since Super Tuesday, the race is already functionally over. Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee. Even if Sanders were to pull off a win in Michigan, as a matter of delegate math there’s no real difference between Bernie +10 or Biden +10. The crushing weight of Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the breadth of Biden’s coalition will come to bear, soon.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some tertiary aspects of the race that will be influenced tonight.

(1) Mathematical elimination: If Sanders loses Michigan tonight, then there will be no reasonable rationale for him to continue his campaign. I mean, other than spite.

Spite is a great reason to keep campaigning.

But if he can’t win a state that he took from Clinton in 2016, where the demographics aren’t great for him, but aren’t awful, either—and where he was leading as recently as two weeks ago—then there will be no even remotely plausible path to the nomination.

What Sanders could do is try to bloody Biden and render him unelectable. He could use the next three months to convince his supporters that they should be #NeverBiden.

(2) The next debate: Biden and Sanders are scheduled to go 1-on-1 this Sunday in Arizona. If Sanders wins Michigan, he can pretend to have momentum and Biden may be forced into a slugfest with him, since Sanders has already signaled that he is going to try to disqualify Biden.

On the other hand, if Biden wins Michigan, he can sit back at the debate, let Sanders swing away, and magnanimously court Sanders’ supporters by telling Bernie “Love your passion.”

If Biden wins Michigan, then he won’t need to even engage Sanders at the debate.

(3) Veep maneuvering: Last night a friend asked me why Elizabeth Warren hadn’t endorsed Bernie yet. The answer, I think, is that Warren now wants to be Biden’s VP and in order to be an attractive candidate, she needs to retain friendly ties to the progressive wing of the party without having said out loud that she prefers Sanders to Biden.

That’s the sort of cynical gamesmanship you expect from a normal politician and not really the thing you expect from the candidate who is going to FIGHT FOR CHANGE NO MATTER WHAT!

But whatevs. Warren is what she is.

Assuming that everyone else acknowledges tomorrow morning that this race is over, we’ll move on to veep speculation in what will be the most consequential VP selection in our lifetimes.

So let’s talk about it.

2. VP Games

Fwiw, I understand the idea of picking Warren. But if I was advising Team Biden, I’d remind them of what I regard as the most inspired VP pick of the last 50 years: Clinton picking Gore.

In 1992 the knock against Clinton was that he was too young and inexperienced and that, situated against H.W. Bush, that youth and inexperience would be in stark relief.

Clinton’s advisors wanted him to pick someone older and more experienced as a way of assuaging those fears. Clinton believed this would be a mistake and would only remind voters of his weakness.

Instead, he wanted to double-down and pick someone who was, in many ways, a second version of what he represented: A young, new path for the Democratic party. (I know it’s hard to remember, but that’s what Al Gore was in 1992. Seriously. He was even nicknamed “Al Gore-geous.”)

Clinton was right, his advisers were wrong. The rest is history.

The temptation for Biden will be to say that he has to balance the ticket with someone younger, or someone from the left, or a minority, in order to erase his perceived weaknesses. (That he’s too old, too moderate, too white.)

I would argue that this is exactly the wrong way to think about the pick.

Instead, Biden should choose someone who doubles-down on his basic proposition for the election.

And Biden’s proposition is this: We’ve arrived at a place where our politics is poisoned and we need a restoration to the old ways, where we can all get along and stop hating each other. Where we are today is not actually who we are.

As I keep saying, this is an unorthodox pitch. Most successful elections are about the future. Biden is consciously invoking the past. That said, I think our current political situation is unusual enough that this might actually be perfectly calibrated to the moment.

So what Biden looks for his veep, he shouldn’t be looking for someone who covers up his weaknesses, but rather someone who echoes his strengths. Someone people just plain like.

And while there are a few possibilities, but the guy who immediately comes to mind for me is Cory Booker.

3. RL Liberal Tears

Not the Onion:

On Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders had a bad night. His moderate rival, Joe Biden, riding the strength of his dominating win in South Carolina and boosted by endorsements from Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, swept the South, and beat out Sanders in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Texas. Sanders won California, Colorado, Utah, and his home state of Vermont, but finished the night trailing Biden by sixty-five delegates. Sanders and his supporters had hoped to rack up a formidable delegate lead, forcing the recalcitrant Democratic establishment to acknowledge him as a palatable nominee and cementing his viability in the minds of primary voters. That didn’t happen.

I watched these results come in—on a pirated MSNBC stream—with a few friends and my roommate, Dan, who is unemployed and spends most of his waking hours calling and texting for Bernie. A pall fell over our living room as state after state went for Biden, a familiar sense of dread and inevitability. Preternaturally upbeat and optimistic in most circumstances, Dan did not conceal his growing despair, pacing the apartment, darkly muttering to himself. A rolling tide of gloom, resignation, and recrimination overtook my Twitter feed. It was over. “The establishment” had conspired against Sanders. Elizabeth Warren had “kneecapped” the progressive movement. Our enemies were too powerful, too nefarious, too corrupt. The forces of capital had won. Again.

The following morning, light crept back through our windows. Plans were made for trips to canvass in Michigan. Dan returned to the auto-dialer. But I couldn’t get the evening’s pre-post-mortems out of my head. It all felt familiar. The left, of which I am doomed to remain a perpetual partisan, has an intimate relationship with defeat. Defeat is our mother: our sustainer and our burden. “The history of socialism,” writes historian Enzo Traverso, “is a constellation of defeats nourished for almost two centuries.” The affective life of the left is defined by nostalgia, belatedness, memory, and mourning. We cherish a serial history of might-have-beens: if the Communards had stormed Versailles, if the work of Radical Reconstruction had been completed, if the Soviet Union had exorcised its totalitarian demons, if the Spanish Republic had survived the civil war, if the Prague Spring had been allowed to flourish, if Allende had survived the coup, if Mitterand had resisted the call of rigueur, if workers had seized power during this or that general strike, if Bernie had won the primary in 2016, if if if

This mood, I suspect, is familiar to many leftists. It feeds a bitterly hopeful disposition, which Traverso calls “left-wing melancholy.” For Marxists, every generation of militants is doomed to fail, save the last one

Honestly, you can’t make this up. Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.