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Bernie Sanders Should Retool His Campaign to Lead the Charge Against Coronavirus

Bernie Sanders can’t continue campaigning as usual, and he certainly can’t drop out of the race. We desperately need Bernie to retool his entire operation to demand a robust government response to the coronavirus — a response the Democratic Party will never spearhead themselves.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders delivers a campaign update at the Hotel Vermont on March 11, 2020 in Burlington, Vermont. Scott Eisen / Getty

Coronavirus has interrupted life as usual, and, for the Left, this has meant a delayed reckoning with what many pundits are eager to proclaim: the Bernie Sanders campaign, a once-in-a-lifetime insurgent campaign that many of us have spent every free second of our lives working for, is currently facing a very steep margin to overcome against Joe Biden in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The campaign now faces a harrowing choice. If Sanders drops out, as mainstream media and centrist liberals are urging him to do, Biden and the establishment won’t budge an inch, and a generation of socialists and progressives is demoralized. If Sanders stays in, his campaign is severely limited without the ability to hold big rallies or canvasses because of the pandemic, in addition to the many other enormous hurdles he faces.

There is another option, though: stay in the race, but make a wholesale transition from campaigning for the nomination to campaigning for Bernie’s coronavirus policy — not just redirecting some donations to charity or sending text messages to encourage social distancing, but transforming the entire organizational apparatus of the Bernie campaign into a virus-fighting machine.

What would this look like? First, it would mean Bernie making an announcement that he is in the race until the Democratic Party begins fighting for a strong coronavirus policy (i.e., his own) that not only compensates unemployed workers but also coordinates the production of needed supplies, protects the essential services workforce (many of whom are currently working through the crisis in unsafe or unsanitary conditions), and plans the effective distribution of testing and treatment materials — and that he is going to turn his entire campaign apparatus into pushing for this policy and supporting relief efforts. Bernie should use the considerable leverage he has right now to outflank the suddenly invisible Joe Biden to advocate for a more aggressive approach.

The national media are waiting for Sanders to drop out so they can ignore him again, but if he uses the media attention to his (and all of our) advantage, he can help transform public opinion into reasonable public policy. If Republicans are going to refuse to coerce corporations into fighting the virus, and if the Democratic establishment is going to insist on means testing, the Sanders movement should take matters into our own hands, becoming the largest pressure group in the nation demanding an effective coronavirus response.

The Bernie 2020 political team can reorient to getting new endorsements — not for Sanders himself, but for his coronavirus response. The organizing team can rehabilitate the Bernie dialer and the BERN app, but to agitate for Bernie’s plan. The communications team can continue making inspiring videos, but with health experts about how this challenge can bring us together rather than tear us apart. The vast volunteer network can take charge of mutual aid projects; as Krystal Ball recently suggested, imagine a team of young people wearing Medicare for All t-shirts and delivering meals to nursing homes.

And, finally, Bernie’s campaign cash can go toward a massive ad blitz explaining his policy, why it’s necessary, and why the current response from the government is insufficient.

This sweeping reorientation of the campaign is the only way to re-energize Bernie’s base right now. We cannot ask people to keep making calls about who they’re voting for in the primary. We’re just not in that reality any more. Everyone is thinking about coronavirus, and if they aren’t, they will be very soon. An announcement like this would wake up every Bernie activist who’s tuned out of the primary and make them believe again in the mantra “Not Me, Us.”

But, more important, this might be our best shot at avoiding total human and economic disaster.

Elites in Washington, DC, Republican and Democrat alike, are proving incapable of addressing this crisis with courage, competency, and care. Liberals are insisting on minor variations of a containment theme that amounts to putting our heads in the sand and (hopefully) cutting a relief check for Americans to spend on Amazon. Conservatives, meanwhile, are schizophrenically denying the reality of the crisis and praising the president’s erratic response.

No other major national leader has approached the question with nearly the scope that Bernie has. He knows we must do more than tell people to sit tight in their living rooms while unemployment skyrockets to 30 percent. We cannot rely on containment to save us — we need to build more beds, stimulate economic activity through the coordinated production of needed medical materials, and quickly distribute protective equipment and supplies to get people to work fighting the virus.

A responsible relief package requires 1) the expansion of health coverage to everyone in the United States through the passage of emergency Medicare legislation, 2) the expansion of health care capacity through the building and converting of infrastructure to exponentially increase the amount of available staffed hospital beds, and 3) the expansion of production by commanding the manufacture and distribution of needed supplies.

But how could that plan get through a Republican administration? There is no already-mobilized political infrastructure as large and as powerful as the Bernie Sanders campaign and the attendant organizations supporting him. We can use Bernie’s considerable volunteer army to batter the halls of Washington, DC. By turning the millions of Sanders supporters into the largest and best organized grassroots lobby in the country, we can provide the muscle to demand measures that would otherwise never be taken seriously — measures that could save millions of lives.

Bernie campaign staff: I know this isn’t what you signed up for, but you might be our best shot at this world-historical moment. The decision before you about the future of the campaign is one of life and death.