It's time for Sanders to take on Biden's atrocious fifty-year anti-liberal record. Here are 3 ways he can do it
For the second time (after the heart attack last fall), the Bernie Sanders movement is on life support. Let us not sugarcoat this: last night was worse than the worst-case scenario any Bernie supporter had imagined. The drastic slippage in Texas, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, and even Vermont, let alone Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina, represents a mortal threat to the movement. But there’s a glimmer of hope yet, because it was only three days ago that Biden had been written off, so things can change quickly. Of course, we now have the irrefutable fact on the ground of Biden’s delegate haul and his victory in a whole bunch of states, prompted by support from African Americans, older voters, and suburbanites, so it won’t be easy.
But with continued backing from younger and Latino voters, Bernie needs to quickly figure out a counter-strategy to come roaring back. And come back he can, despite the terrain in the rest of March being quite unfavorable to him, as well as the danger of the media narrative going past the point of reversibility.
Though it’s not in Bernie’s nature to follow a game plan of the sort I’m suggesting, I hope his advisers will convince him that at stake is the fate of the movement, and the enthusiasm of the millions of engaged voters he’s inspired, and that he must rapidly shift his approach. Bernie should demand one-on-one debates with Biden, which would certainly be facilitated by Warren dropping out and not sniping at him, but it’s something he should ask for even if the field isn’t cleared.
The gloves must immediately come off when it comes to treating Joe Biden. He’s been let off all too easily this entire campaign, given his atrocious fifty-year anti-liberal record. Blanketing the airwaves to the extent the campaign can, and picking strategic spots to maintain some momentum through the rest of March (probably Ohio, Washington, Michigan, and Arizona), Sanders needs to do to Biden what he should have done to Elizabeth Warren long ago—that is, make his opponent appear ridiculously unelectable, which in fact he is.
1. Press hard on Biden’s record beyond support for the Iraq War, unfavorable trade bills, Social Security cuts, and the bankruptcy bill, all of which Bernie did bring up on Tuesday night. But why does it feel like Bernie’s critique of Biden only starts after 2003? What about Biden’s disqualifying record on the war on drugs, the promotion of mass incarceration, and Patriot Act-like attacks on civil liberties, going back to the 1980s and 1990s? What about his opposition to busing and desegregation? What about his horrible treatment of Anita Hill? What about his complicity with Obama’s barbarous deportation policy? What about his advocacy of the kinds of financial deregulation that led to the economic crash?
Bernie did make a start Tuesday evening, but he has been all too reluctant to go after Biden, even when numerous opportunities to draw distinctions have presented themselves. This lack of appetite to engage almost killed his campaign by way of Warren in the fall, until she was questioned by the media and failed to stand firmly behind Medicare for All. If Bernie keeps calling Biden “my good friend Joe,” he just adds to the impression in voters’ minds that while Biden may have lost a few marbles he is still fundamentally a decent guy and deserves a shot as Barack Obama’s legitimate successor.
2. We’ve heard Bernie’s stump speech, with its completely warranted emphasis on the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, and other industries that are the culprits in our economic serfdom, but for now Bernie needs to come up with a brand-new script. Clearly, voters across the country on Super Tuesday rejected association with “democratic socialism” the way it’s been misrepresented in the media, and bought into the reactionary idea that, for example, getting rid of private insurance would be too disruptive and not even doable in any future political scenario. But Bernie’s dreams for economic equality seem fantastical only by comparison to the utterly false impression of Biden as a capable executive who’s always stood by the little guy.
Bernie needs to zero in on the astonishing aspects of Biden’s resume we haven’t heard enough about throughout this campaign. Biden not only supported the Iraq War but was one of its most enthusiastic cheerleaders. His own president didn’t go for Biden’s advice on Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, so while he may have been a boisterous speechmaker in the Senate his actual record consists of a half-century of gross misjudgments. The same goes for mass incarceration, where he was not just a passive supporter but one of the leading articulators of the whole apparatus of imprisonment that came into being and still exists. He should be challenged on unjustifiable votes in these areas—from wholehearted support for neoliberal trade agreements to Bush/Cheney-like civil rights violations to the persistent aura of misogyny and racism throughout his career—without any regard for his feelings.
3. Change the discourse from “Trump is the most existential threat we face” to “Biden will herald the return of everything that caused Trump in the first place and help bring about something even worse than Trump.” I’ve always been against Bernie taking up the theme of Trump as the worst modern president because each time he does so he makes Biden’s superficial case for electability all the stronger. If Trump really is the greatest threat to the republic, then why take a chance with Bernie who promises a political revolution? Why not go with Obama’s vice president who looks like he might restore dignity and take us back to some semblance of normality?
Bernie hasn’t wanted to go anywhere near that, but I don’t think he can win the nomination without taking on Obama’s horrendous record on domestic and foreign policy, from drones and assassinations to deficit hawkery and deportations. What Bernie has wanted to do so far is to somehow bypass the sad truth about the last Democratic president and not give the electorate too much to absorb, since Obama remains popular, certainly among those who turned out in droves to support Biden on Super Tuesday.
How, then, to break the link between Biden and Obama? It can only be done by making the desire to go back to Obama less appealing. And by pointing out example after example of where Biden made errors of judgment by standing with Obama on the wrong things, such as cutting Social Security and Medicaid in pursuit of an elusive grand bargain with Republican deficit hawks, or by going along with the continuation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan despite his own doubts. I know this is a lot to ask for from Bernie, and harder still for not having been attempted before, but I don’t see a way around it.
In short, though the situation is critical, all is not lost because Bernie’s hardcore base is not going away. The problem lies in expanding that base, and if we are to be honest about Super Tuesday we must admit that across the country voters rejected the way Sanders was said to be describing the change he promises to bring about in favor of a do-nothing restoration. Though I’ve always supported Bernie’s use of “democratic socialist” to label himself, I would not go out of my way to do so for the time being. Rather, a ferocious attack, including paid advertising, must bring to the surface Biden’s half-century of reactionary stances, of the kind that should make Democratic voters ashamed to be aligned with him. The fact that Biden has reached a palpable level of senility should also not be off the table.
Those of us who have been with this unprecedented social justice movement with our heart and soul for the last many years expect that Bernie goes to this climactic fight with Biden with nothing left unsaid. No punches pulled, no recourse to the affable civility that comes naturally to Bernie, just a tenacious enunciation of the policies that Biden so enthusiastically supported and that led to the very rise of Trump.
Anis Shivani's recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Solution to the Immigration Problem, and Confronting American Fascism. His novel A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less was released in January 2020.