Sen. Bernie Sanders with then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2013. Photo courtesy the U.S. Senate.
Bernie Sanders seemed to be cruising to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination when his campaign crashed into the same rock that sank it in 2016: South Carolina’s largely African American primary voters.
That this happened in a state the Democrats have no hope of carrying in November says something about the party’s plight this year.
So does the fact that, from a vast and diverse initial field of bright young candidates, the Democratic banner will be carried by a 77-year-old white man. Moreover, former Vice President Joe Biden is a career politician whose past voting record puts him at odds with much of the party’s base. He is currently marooned in his Delaware basement and irrelevant to the only story that matters at the moment, the fight against COVID-19.
Sanders’ more-or-less-withdrawal from the race made Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee to oppose President Donald Trump’s re-election. This completes a remarkable political resurrection. Biden’s campaign was in dire need of respiratory support after poor showings in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. South Carolina’s Democrats gave it to him, as they did for Hillary Clinton four years ago. Each time, Sanders had been riding a wave of momentum until he reached the Palmetto State. His “democratic socialist” identification and Brooklyn/Vermont background evidently do not resonate with South Carolina’s tight-knit, small-town, largely churchgoing Democrats.
After South Carolina, Democrats quickly consolidated behind Biden as their best hope of stopping Trump, with the notable exception of Sanders’ supposed friend and ideological soulmate Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren, last seen on the side of a milk carton after a Super Tuesday wipeout, declined either to stick up for Sanders or to back Biden.
To further add to Biden’s headaches, Sanders is still technically in the race, even though he has conceded. He told a livestream audience on Wednesday that he will leave his name on the ballot in the remaining primary states to amass more delegates and improve his leverage at the Democratic convention. That convention is now scheduled for August in Milwaukee, in whatever form or fashion the coronavirus permits. The pandemic has already cost the party’s ticket a month of general election campaign window.
I suspect that Warren, like Sanders, will try to use the promise of her support to win policy concessions from Biden. She may even demand the number-two spot on his ticket. Biden has already announced that no men need apply. Warren is not the sort of person to overlook the possibilities inherent in being vice president to a septuagenarian who regularly strikes some observers as rather befuddled.
Biden cannot win without consolidating the support of the Democrats’ left and further-left wings. (The term “moderate Democrat” proved to be a misnomer this primary season.) In critical swing states, he will also need to draw support from the sliver of voters often called “independent,” but who are better described as nonaligned – the sort who voted for Barack Obama and then Trump. He would also benefit from drawing a few Republicans who dislike many Democratic policies, but who dislike Trump more.
This would be a lot to ask under normal circumstances of a candidate who is the exact opposite of a fresh face. It is even more to ask of a politician stuck in his basement while his opponent, the president of the United States, commands the airwaves night after night to deliver upbeat messages about how his team is beating the worst public health menace of our lifetimes.
I tried to think of another occasion when the selection of the main opposition candidate for president might have been less of a news story. The closest I could come was the GOP nomination of New York Gov. Thomas Dewey to oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. Republicans nominated Dewey at a convention that occurred three weeks after D-Day. Dewey lost to Roosevelt, who died in office five months after the election. Dewey then ran against Roosevelt’s former vice president, Harry Truman, in 1948. He famously lost that race too.
Trump is hardly FDR. His re-election is anything but a sure bet, even against an opponent buried under a pile of political rocks. But I have to wonder whether all those Democrats who spent so much time, energy and money – truly prodigious amounts of money in one particular case – to be where Biden is right now would trade places with him, even if they could.