All that matters now is: Will Bernie Sanders campaign his blankety-blank off for Joe Biden? In 2016, he ended up a good soldier for the last month or so, but a lot of damage had been done by then. But let’s not rehash all that.
Let’s just look at Sanders’ statement that he read from Burlington on Wednesday. It was a gracious and eloquent statement, I remember thinking as I was watching. But as I read back over it, I notice a couple things I missed in real time.
First of all, he didn’t say the word “endorse.” You know, as in a sentence like, “I officially endorse Joe Biden and pledge right now to do all I can to see that he defeats Donald Trump.” Instead, he said: “Today I congratulate Joe Biden, a very decent man who I will work with to move our progressive ideas forward.”
That’s a tad grudging. And it didn’t help that it was followed with his pledge to stay on the ballots and keep seeking delegates and “continue working to assemble as many delegates as possible at the Democratic convention, where we will be able to exert significant influence over the party platform and other functions.”
That’s a natural thing for a second-place presidential candidate to say, so Sanders isn’t doing anything unusual here. But it’s a little dig at the party, right? It’s a little reminder that he has some leverage and plans on using it.
Again, that’s normal, and it’s something he has every right to do. But it depends on how, and for what. Take health care. The Democratic platform already says the party believes “that health care is a right, not a privilege, and our health care system should put people before profits.” Is he going to push for a Medicare for All commitment of some kind? He might, emboldened by all those exit polls in the states that did get to vote showing that voters supported it.
But by any normal political calculus, that’s too much. He ran on Medicare for All. He lost. Whatever the exit polls say, he was the candidate of Medicare for All, and he lost. Democrats chose, and decisively, the candidate who was probably the most vocal among the top-tier candidates—neck-and-neck with Pete Buttigieg, I guess—in arguing that Medicare for All would be a political albatross.
So watch for what Sanders pushes for at the convention, whatever form the convention takes. And what he says along these lines over these next weeks. If his emphasis is on how awful Donald Trump is, great. If his emphasis is on how insufficient the Biden Democrats are—not so great.
But look. I come to praise Bernie, not to bury him. I’m not sure I agree 100 percent with the notion that he won “the ideological battle.” Read Tom Edsall’s current New York Times column on that point. The story is complicated, and whether they like hearing this on Twitter or not, most rank-and-file Democrats just aren’t leftists.
But it is undoubtedly true that he made formerly “left-wing” positions mainstream, many of which I support and think most liberals would. When he used that phrase Wednesday morning, about winning the ideological battle, he mentioned four particulars. A $15 minimum wage. Health care as a right. Transforming away from fossil fuels. And higher education that must be “available” (interestingly, not free) to all. I think most Democrats agree at least on these four things now. That’s great.
There’s something he didn’t mention that’s bigger. He got people thinking that democracy has an economic element to it. He didn’t quite do this explicitly enough for my tastes, because his turn of mind isn’t particularly philosophical perhaps or is simply too wired to see everything in class war terms. Elizabeth Warren did it a little better, in her best moments. Even Buttigieg did it here and there.
But Bernie opened that door. In the academy, loads of economists and political scientists have been working on this problem since the Great Recession, and the economics profession in fact is going through huge (and good, if they happen!) changes. But Bernie led the charge among politicians to open up that vital conversation—about how we can’t really call ourselves a democracy if 85 or 90 percent of people are falling behind and every policy outcome is what the top 1 percent wants. For that, anyone from Third Way to the Democratic Socialists of America should be grateful to him.
I have, of course, my thoughts about why he didn’t win. I remember after Nevada, a friend of mine who comes from the labor movement emailed me to say: Well, he’s the nominee. And we, and you, have to be for him with all you’ve got. And I did not disagree. I wrote after Nevada: “He’s winning this thing fair and square. And he is inspiring to millions of people. That counts for something. That’s what politics is supposed to be. If the others can’t stop him, they’d better get behind him. I certainly will. With zero hesitation. Sanders is vastly superior to Trump in every imaginable way. The re-election of the incumbent is unthinkable.”
And then it collapsed, more dramatically and swiftly than anyone could have imagined. I think there were three reasons—two of them straightforward, and one a little more abstract.
One: Black voters, who buried him, just liked Biden, and were in no mood to take a chance on a socialist. Two: Sanders kept on alienating and berating the Democratic Party. The day before the Nevada caucus, he tweeted:
Feeling his oats there. If he’d tweeted, “Establishment Democrats, I invite you to join this movement,” etc. etc., the whole story might have been different.
Three: Here’s the abstract point. Sanders had no, if you’ll permit me the phrase, song of America. No sense of patriotism or love of country came through in his presentation. The Twitterati sneer at patriotism, and most liberal-left elites do, too. But you know what? Most regular people, very much including Democrats, are patriotic.
They don’t want to hear that the United States is benighted or corrupt. They want to hear that the United States is good—that it can be better, but that it is good. In his statement Wednesday, he said “this country is incredibly beautiful.” I’d never heard him talk like that. But even then, one sensed he meant the scenery, not the soul.
I think Sanders’ inability to attract support beyond his ideological base is absolutely down to this factor. He had no rhetoric that inspired people who didn’t agree with his policy program. But hey. He changed American politics. You can’t say that of many people. But now he has to do his part to change it in the way it really needs to be changed—to see Trump retired. If he throws himself into that effort 110 percent, he’ll have an honored place in the history of the party he never quite joined, and he’ll have earned it.