Last night was a big setback for Bernie Sanders. I thought there were reasons to be optimistic, but there’s no getting around this result. While the Vermont senator didn’t lose his home state and he managed to score an impressive victory in delegate-rich California, the overall picture was grim. Sanders won a total of four of the fourteen states up for grabs.
The establishment’s dramatic, overnight consolidation behind Biden was a sign of desperation — a last-ditch, coordinated attempt to stop Bernie Sanders from gaining an insurmountable lead on Super Tuesday — but it worked. And it should be disturbing that, even after Michael Bloomberg supplied the last missing piece of the establishment consolidation by dropping out this morning, there’s been no similar consolidation in what pundits often call the “progressive lane” of the race.
Even so, Sanders supporters shouldn’t get discouraged. The path to victory is longer than it would have been if Super Tuesday had gone differently, but it’s still there. Even after last night’s setback, Bernie is only forty-five delegates behind Biden — with thousands still up for grabs.
And with only one serious competitor left in the race, the arguments we can make for voting for Bernie just got a lot simpler.
Bernie Over Biden
When the race for the 2020 nomination started, the ideological lines were fairly blurry. Several candidates, including the centrist Kamala Harris, had co-sponsored Bernie’s Medicare for All bill in the Senate. It wasn’t uncommon to hear undecided voters say that they agreed with Bernie’s platform but they worried that he was too old — or they just didn’t want to vote for yet another white male candidate.
The narrowing of the race to Sanders and Biden renders all such secondary considerations irrelevant. I agree with my friend Michael Brooks, who has commented several times on his show that calling the son of Jewish refugees from Hitler “just another white man” crassly erases important distinctions, but whatever one makes of that issue, Biden’s status as just another white male candidate is hardly in doubt. What’s more, seventy-seven-year-old Biden was born less than a year before Bernie — and is in far worse cognitive shape, as we’ve seen over and over again in recent days.
Someone who clasps his wife’s hand and says “this is my little sister Valerie” — as Biden did just last night — is not a candidate prepared to face off with the most cruel and uninhibited debater in the history of modern presidential politics. Remember how much fun Trump had with Marco Rubio’s bottle of water or Michael Bloomberg’s height and try to imagine what he’d do with Biden.
And the ideological gap separating these two white men — Sanders and Biden — is large enough to be seen from space. Biden did the bidding of the credit card industry in Delaware while the independent socialist from Vermont carried a lonely torch for economic justice. Biden voted for the Iraq War in the Senate while Bernie helped lead the effort in the House to oppose it — an effort so successful that the majority of the House Democratic Caucus voted “no.” Biden supported the Patriot Act while Bernie Sanders has a 100 percent rating from the ACLU. Bernie Sanders is practically synonymous with “Medicare for All,” while Biden stands for the preservation of the private health insurance industry. Bernie Sanders was talking about the evils of mass incarceration in the early 1990s, while Biden spent decades as one of the Senate’s most consistent advocates for “tough on crime” policies. And, crucially, Biden supported every trade deal that Bernie Sanders opposed.
The evidence shows that Democratic primary voters are politically closer to Sanders than to Biden — for example, in all the states where exit polls included Medicare for All questions last night, the majority of respondents said they supported the measure. The fact that so many of those states went to Biden anyway means two things: first, that Sanders and his supporters need to do a better job informing the public about just how bad Biden’s record is on this and many other issues important to primary voters. And second, that it’s likely that even many voters who do know how far Biden is from their policy preferences voted for him anyway based on the severely misguided idea that he would be more electable than Sanders in a matchup against Trump.
In response, we need to point to the polling evidence, to Biden’s obvious cognitive decline, and to the connections between electability and policy. Whoever is the Democratic nominee will need to win back the Rust Belt swing states (like my home state of Michigan) that Clinton lost in 2016. If voters there don’t already know how bad Biden is on trade, Trump will ensure that they do by November.
Bernie Sanders’s message would play well in precisely those states. Indeed, not only has Sanders outperformed Trump pretty consistently over the course of years of national polling, state-level polls in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania almost all show Sanders winning in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. Even a recent Quinnipiac poll that was an exception to the trend, showing a possible Trump victory in Wisconsin, found that Sanders would do better there than Biden.
Joe Biden is one of the most easily flustered candidates in living memory. He has a bad habit of flying off the handle and telling voters to “just go vote for someone else” — or challenging them to push-up contests. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is imperturbable. The question has not been devised that he can’t answer by pivoting back to his support for Medicare for All and other concrete policies that would make life better for working people.
Which one of these men would you want to have face off against Donald Trump in November?