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Joe Biden Has Saved the Democrats—For Now

How Uncle Joe brought his party back from the precipice.
March 5, 2020
Joe Biden Has Saved the Democrats—For Now

On Super Tuesday Joe Biden achieved the most abrupt and astonishing reversal of fortune in the history of presidential primaries. In the process he spared his party an agonizing choice: whether or not to nominate an ultimately doomed “democratic socialist” who commanded a plurality—but not a majority—of pledged delegates to their convention.

Biden came to the moment of his political lifetime short of funds, advertising, and infrastructure, hoping merely to keep Sanders within reach. What he accomplished instead was beyond his—or really anyone’s—imaginings.

He rallied a broadening base powered by an overwhelming African-American vote. He restored the belief that he could win the nomination—and that he was the Democrat best positioned to beat Donald Trump. He parlayed last-minute endorsements from Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke into the hope of a more unified party.

He won states where he seemed to have no hope of winning (Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Texas); states where he appeared to be trailing (Oklahoma and Arkansas); and in the states where he looked to be ahead, he absolutely crushed Sanders (Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). In doing so he consolidated a center-left vote heretofore split with vanquished competitors. Pending the final tally in California, he has political leverage deemed unthinkable until Tuesday evening—an apparent delegate lead over Sanders as the race moves to even more favorable terrain.

Biden is now positioned to build a moderate majority in the primaries ahead. This electoral math is what moved the data-driven Michael Bloomberg to withdraw. Biden is now on track to secure a delegate majority well before the convention – even if Bernie Sanders fights to the end.

Which he almost certainly will. Sanders is well-organized, copiously funded, and sustained by a passionate base of supporters who will no doubt be joined—even if Elizabeth Warren persists—by increasing numbers of her erstwhile supporters. Even at his best Biden is an erratic campaigner, prone to stumbles on the stump or in debate, provoking unease about the long slog ahead. And the contests remaining in March, while favorable, do not yet promise certainty.

Next Tuesday’s elections in Washington, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho, and North Dakota will award 352 delegates—63 less than were allotted in California alone. Nonetheless, they offer Biden more chances to affirm his burgeoning strength— particularly in Missouri and Mississippi, where he should win—and in Michigan, which Sanders won in 2016, but where Biden now leads. Should Biden continue his surge, he will move closer to the nomination, and his party will move further from the specter of a contested convention.

Which raises the next problem: What to do about Sanders’ supporters?

In May 2016, Sanders argued vociferously that Democrats should reject the clear delegate and vote leader—Hillary Clinton—in favor of the candidate most likely to win: naturally, himself.

Already, Sanders supporters are claiming that the system has been rigged in 2020, as well. Their complaints focus on the withdrawal of Buttigieg and Klobochar (and now Bloomberg) and the assertion that billionaires and party elites gave the order to coalesce around Biden.

The idea that Biden—whose fundraising was anemic and whose organization barely existed—somehow “rigged” the contests is almost as absurd as the contention that it was “billionaires,” rather than moderate African-Americans and suburban women, who drove his plenteous victories.

But for Bernie, the definition of a “rigged system” has always been whatever suits his self-interest. The only constant is the fixed identity of the victim: him.

If the past is prologue, Bernie will cry foul all the way to Milwaukee. Should he lose—whether at the ballot box (more likely) or on the convention floor (less likely)—we can expect his assertion of situational victimhood to evoke a Pavlovian response: A recent survey showed that almost half his supporters might defect should the Democrats nominate anyone else; 16 percent of them promised that they would.

Biden will no doubt do all he can to convince Sanders voters to support him in November, spelling out policies which address their most urgent concerns. But for that recalcitrant 16 percent, one fears that this isn’t about policy. It’s about purity- and entitlement. Here, for instance, is the reliably irreconcilable and sophomoric Nathan Robinson—who claimed to have wept when Sanders lost in 2016— issuing ominous warnings prior to the South Carolina primary:

[A]nyone who votes to deprive the rightful nominee [Sanders}of the nomination “should be taking that vote with the absolute certainty that the organized working class in this country will use civil disobedience, mass protests, and primary election challenges to exact retribution and remove them from office.”

When Robinson wrote this, we had seen precisely one primary and two caucuses. Yet he was ready to declare Sanders the rightful nominee. These are the same people who believed that Sanders was thwarted by an establishment conspiracy in 2016, even though Clinton won 3.7 million more primary votes. Their anger places them beyond party and reason alike; the endorsement of Biden by his moderate rivals has exponentially increased their outrage. And so they assert, simultaneously, (1) that Bernie Sanders alone can marshal a popular revolution powerful enough to defeat Donald Trump and bring democratic socialism to America and (2) that Bernie is so powerless that the combination of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar can thwart his revolution by highjacking millions of voters on Super Tuesday.

It does make one wonder: If Bernie Sanders can’t beat Joe Biden—despite a massive advantage in organization and money—how on earth would he force through unpopular legislation to eradicate private health insurance?

The Democrats’ dilemma is Trump’s delight: Expect him to argue both that Democrats are the party of socialism, yet also an undemocratic cabal who made young Nathan weep yet again by ruthlessly suppressing Bernie’s demands for democratic socialism.

This is serious business, and requires Democrats to make a clear-eyed assessment of the candidate who inspires such threats.

First, the obvious. Sanders is a movement candidate who attracts fervent support from a finite faction of his nominal party, driven by grievances against both the past and current economic and political order. That includes not just tax-cutting Republicans, but Obama Democrats: In 2012, Harry Reid had to dissuade Sanders from a primary challenge against the incumbent president.

Sanders’ fervor is driven by an ideological wish list that elevates passion over political practicability. Some of this agenda is shared by his nominal party—but other elements are not.

With reason. His proposals for free college and student debt relief would benefit the wealthy while diverting billions of dollars from other urgent priorities. His Medicare-for-All proposal would erase private health insurance for millions of Americans who hold it essential to their health and security, while imposing costs to the government that he has no idea how to meet.

His solutions to our immigration policies include decriminalizing the border and breaking up ICE. As one of his campaign operatives says: “When it comes to dignity and humanity, we don’t care about who is being alienated.”

If Sanders and his militant minority truly want to replace Trump—and help his victims—then perhaps they should.

But there’s more. He wants a blanket moratorium on deportations, regardless of cause. He proposes an immediate ban on fracking which would cost the party Pennsylvania—and, for what it’s worth, foreclose any chance of flipping Ohio or Texas. Then there’s his guaranteed federal jobs program.

These proposals aren’t designed to be passed, or even to persuade. They are virtue signaling, litmus tests of purity created solely in order to gratify the faithful.

Sanders is a political tooth fairy untethered to reality and disinterested in details. One can well understand why he appeals to young people to whom we’ve bequeathed a deadly climate cul-de-sac, a corrupt system of campaign finance, and a gig economy which systematically screws them. But Sanders’ contempt for political practicability marinates his fiercest adherents in a destructive self-righteousness.

David Van Drehle puts it well: “Sanders voters are caught in a feedback loop. Their candidate speaks truth to power. When others disagree, it’s because power is threatened. If power is threatened, Sanders must be speaking truth. There is no incentive to be serious or literal when your goal is not to persuade but to provoke.”

What Sanders would thrust upon Democrats is a suicide pact—forcing Democrats in pivotal congressional races defend policies that most people don’t want, or distance themselves their own presidential nominee at the cost of offending his fervent adherents.

That so many Democratic officeholders fear him is about more than the machinations of a party establishment—it’s about their primal need to survive. Any standard-bearer for a party carries some risk in down-ballot races. But Sanders’ gravest liabilities are unique to Bernie Sanders.

The Washington Post surveyed numerous Democratic House and Senate candidates about the impact of Sanders as nominee. The response of a swing district congressman is typical: “We flipped those seats because of Donald Trump. And if Democrats want to hand most of those back, put Bernie at the top of the ticket.”

The four leading Democratic candidates with a chance of unseating Republican senators—in Arizona, North Carolina, Maine, and Colorado—all oppose Sanders’ single-payer plan. Bernie Sanders as the nominee was their worst-case scenario.

Sanders responds to all this by insisting that he would turn out an unprecedented and monolithic wave of previously disengaged citizens suddenly enamored with Sanders’ ideological crusade, thereby overwhelming his weakness among people who actually vote.

As the results on Super Tuesday confirmed, this is magical thinking. In Iowa, turnout was down; Sanders lost the delegate race to Pete Buttigieg. In New Hampshire, Bernie’s backyard, turnout was up slightly, yet he barely edged Mayor Pete. In South Carolina, turnout soared—because voters swarmed to insure that Biden trounced Sanders.

Sanders’ electoral theory is not merely groundless; it’s oblivious to the party’s most recent successes. In 2018, the Democrats’ increased turnout came from previous voters, including those who—repelled by Trump—switched from supporting Republicans to predominately moderate Democrats. The model for defeating Trump has already been tested – and it directly contradicts the electoral fantasy Sanders has conjured from the ether.

As a nominee Sanders would prove to be George McGovern, but worse. Granted, because of demographic sorting he would not lose 49 states. But given that ticket splitting has dramatically diminished since 1972, Sanders would have sunk many more congressional Democrats in an epochal loss. Here I fall back on the time–tested wisdom of my Grandmother Patterson: “I hate to think I’m so dumb that I have to learn everything by experience.”

Democrats have dodged a bullet. Now it falls on Biden to finish the job—and then beat Trump in November.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.