As the global economy, American health infrastructure, and Democratic presidential primary have ground to a halt, there was one moment on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that amounted to a refreshing return to normalcy: the sight of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont sarcastically excoriating Republicans on behalf of the nation’s beleaguered working class.
“I find that some of my Republican colleagues are very distressed, they’re very upset that somebody who’s making 10, 12 bucks an hour might end up with a paycheck for four months more than they received last week,” Sanders said, as the Senate debated a stipulation in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that would pay low-wage workers more in relief wages than they might have earned if they were employed.
Four Republicans— Sens. Lindsay Graham (SC), Ben Sasse (NE), Rick Scott (FL), and Tim Scott (SC)—had threatened to hold up the bill unless an amendment was passed to reduce unemployment benefits for the poorest workers.
Sanders was not amused.
“Oh my word, will the universe survive?” Sanders shouted sarcastically. “How absurd and wrong is that? What kind of value system is that?”
It was a return to form for Sanders, who, like former Vice President Joe Biden, has largely been edged out of the national spotlight since their twin campaign events in Cleveland were canceled to prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus. But two weeks after those final un-held rallies, in hindsight the first dominoes to fall in a cascade of chaos that has thrown the Democratic presidential primary dramatically off course, Sanders is clearly making a bid to win back his place at the center of the political conversation.
What remains unclear is if he is seeking to do so in hopes of a Hail Mary delegate victory in June, or because he still sees himself as the best messenger for a progressive message that he views as more critical than ever.
“We are winning the ideological debate—I think especially in this terrible crisis that we’re in, people understand that health care is a human right,” Sanders said in an appearance on NPR on Thursday, in remarks that didn’t give off the vibe that he plans on throwing in the towel any time soon.
“You’re talking about an election without elections… that’s kind of unprecedented,” Sanders continued, adding that his campaign planned on going “virtual,” with events “almost every single night.”
Sanders’ message of social democracy remains strong even as his campaign—which has stopped airing television ads and is not raising money—weakens. But for Sanders’ backers, the question of whether his continued pursuit of the nomination is to further an ideology or a candidacy is beside the point.
“The avalanche started about ‘Why doesn’t he drop out?’ as if he were just any other candidate, and he’s not any other candidate,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute and a former member of the Democratic National Committee’s executive committee. He has advised Sanders to continue his campaign.
Zogby likened most of Sanders’ fallen competitors to balloons, inflated by positive media attention and donations that eventually fell back to earth when the money and media coverage ended. But Sanders, he said, “is not deflated.”
“He therefore has a responsibility to continue to run,” Zogby said. “This ain’t over ’til it’s over and it’s not over yet. Many things can happen in the next two months.”
Sanders’ emergence from semi-sequestration in Vermont, where he departed after a trio of wounding primary losses to “to assess his campaign,” in the words of campaign manager Faiz Shakir, has won him plaudits from left-wing advocates. Ideological allies on the left have publicly indicated that they view Sanders’ refusal to leave the race as a potential boon for the cause—even those who endorsed the presidential race’s other chief progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“Thanks to the leadership of progressives in the Senate… the current bill now provides some measure of accountability for this half-trillion-dollar corporate slush fund,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Warren-backing Working Families Party, in a statement. “As record numbers of people apply for unemployment insurance, Sen. Bernie Sanders fought tooth and nail to protect UI benefits that are the brightest spot in this package.”
It remains unclear how committed Sanders is to the quest of actually winning the nomination, a mathematical near-impossibility under current circumstances, or if he sees his continued presence in the race as a means to an end, like a more altruistic version of candidates who remain in the race to goose their chances of winning a cable news contributorship—but his public commitment to participating in any upcoming primary debate (which may not even exist) leaves little room for ambiguity.
“Senator Sanders is still running for president,” Mike Casca, the campaign’s communications director, declared on Wednesday. “If there is a debate in April, he plans to be there.”
The Biden campaign, for its part, is not publicly as irked by Sanders’ continued candidacy as it might be if the campaign-slash-world were operating under normal rules—although the former vice president’s patience may be wearing thin as he shifts into general election mode.
“My focus is just dealing with this crisis right now—I haven’t thought about any more debates,” Biden said on Wednesday about the prospect of another debate with Sanders. “I think we’ve had enough debates. I think we should get on with this.”