Joe Biden won big again yesterday. It came as no surprise. The results were consistent with the results of recent primaries. And there is little reason to think that the primaries scheduled for later this spring will turn out any different.
This must be disappointing for Bernie and his supporters who had hoped that this year was their year. And early on their hopes were buoyed by national polling and victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. It appeared to them that momentum and advantage belonged to Bernie and his campaign. If he didn’t have a lock on the nomination, he was the clear front runner.
But then the primary schedule shifted to South Carolina and then, a few days later, to Super Tuesday states. When the votes were counted in these state primaries, Bernie’s momentum was suddenly and unexpectedly broken, the field was thinned, and Joe Biden, ushered to the sidelines by pundits after poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, roared back.
In the primaries that followed a week later, Biden again outperformed Bernie by a large margin, and notably in Michigan where he won every county in a state where Bernie had beat Hillary four years earlier.
This slingshot effect hurling Biden from life support to prohibitive favorite, however, wasn’t the handiwork of the “Democratic Party Establishment,” as some on the left have insisted. It was the doing of millions of voters, of a broad-based, loose, and energized coalition. They seized control, asserted their power, and changed the dynamics of the race. If anybody resurrected Joe Biden’s campaign, it wasn’t DNC chair Tom Perez, but these voters, especially African Americans, women, and high school educated white workers. Bernie, in the meantime, lost his momentum entirely and slid to a distant second. So much so that his path to the nomination narrowed dramatically. And last night it was effectively closed, as Biden swept three state primaries.
What should Bernie do now? Stay in, step out? Well, that’s for him to decide. And he has earned that right. After all, he more than anybody else has reframed the political conversation across the country, popularized democratic socialism, and energized young people and a substantial number of Latino voters.
But I will say this: I don’t think a reprise of what he did 4 years ago makes sense either for him or the larger effort to defeat Trump next fall.
Democratic voters are doing more than throwing their support to Joe Biden. Fearing the existential threat of 4 more years of Trump, they are also insisting that the Democratic Party come together in short order around Biden’s candidacy. And the crises of COVID-19 and an imploding economy that are wreaking havoc, even death, across the country only amplify this desire manyfold. Not to recognize this, not to account for it, is a profound mistake.
Indeed, in this tumultuous, unnerving, and unfamiliar time in which we live, Bernie, Biden and all of us for that matter have to recalibrate and break free of small-circle thinking. Isn’t that the message that Democratic voters en masse are telling anybody who will listen? Joe Biden may not be your first choice and he wasn’t mine, but he is the candidate of millions and they are insisting that we rally around his candidacy.
I’m sure Bernie will join them. The only question is when. And that will depend, among other things, on how Biden reaches out to him. It goes without saying that any outreach by the former Vice President should be substantive, not formal. And I believe it will be. Actually, we see evidence of this already. In his speech after the Michigan primary and again last night, he extended his hand in a respectful way to Bernie and his supporters. Also in the debate a few days ago, he moved toward Bernie on tuition-free college education, embraced some positions of Elizabeth Warren, and announced that he would select a woman to be his running mate and, if elected, would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court as soon as a vacancy arises.
Last night he repeated again his desire to gain the confidence of Bernie and his supporters, especially young people. And he clearly knows that it will take more than words, although words are important.
But Bernie too should be prepared to bend some in the interests of unity against Trump, including considering an early suspension of his campaign. Of course, a challenge for him, if he decides to quit, is to bring along his supporters with him. Right now many of them argue that any suspension of his campaign would weaken his and their leverage at the convention to modify party rules and the platform.
But another way to look at this matter is that Bernie would gain the goodwill and generosity of the rest of the delegates at the convention and Democratic voters across the country. And if Biden wins, and I’m convinced that he can, Bernie would be a major player going forward – his counsel and ideas sought by the new administration, his political influence and leverage amplified in Congress and the country, and his reputation greatly enhanced.
The Rolling Stones when they were young sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time you get what you need.” I believe this will be the case if Bernie winds up his primary run and throws his political weight, voice, and popularity behind Joe Biden. In doing so, he will, perhaps more than anyone else other than Biden, position the Democratic Party and the larger anti-Trump movement to to beat Trump and congressional Republicans in November and trigger a new politics that tackles climate disruption, systemic inequality, concentrated economic power, pandemic diseases, our failing health care system, and, not least, saves, expands, and deepens our democracy.