With Joe Biden back in contention, progressives need to think hard about rallying behind Bernie Sanders
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I've supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren's candidacy primarily because I'm a progressive who is wary of Sen. Bernie Sanders' institutional conservatism--because he opposes killing the filibuster which gives the Senate minority a veto over popular legislation and has been wary of even threatening to expand the Supreme Court. (See: "Can Bernie Sanders lead a revolution without killing the filibuster?") In a polarized country where most people don't pay much attention to politics and Fox News is the top-rated cable channel, I don't buy his pitch that he can build a massive transpartisan movement that would force Republicans and moderate Democrats to bend the knee and support his agenda. (I also find the constant drama between his campaign and the Democratic establishment off-putting at a time when the parties have never been weaker and we're campaigning to defeat a corrupt white nationalist regime.)
But like most of the Democratic base, I believe that a second term for Trump would pose a serious threat to our pluralistic democracy and the separation of powers, and averting that disaster is my highest priority. As a result, and with some reticence, the time has come for me to switch my support from Warren to Sanders.
With the rapid departures of every other candidate but former Vice President Joe Biden, we now have a three-person field, and only two of them have a chance of accruing a majority of pledged delegates before the party's convention in July. While we won't know the precise delegate count from Super Tuesday for some time, Biden is going to emerge with somewhere around 650-700 delegates, Sanders is going to be trailing him by around 80-100, and Warren is going to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 delegates in total.
If no candidate gains a majority during the primaries, Warren could theoretically become a unity candidate in a contested convention--one who would be broadly acceptable to both wings of the party. That's her states rationale for remaining in the race, although that could obviously change.
The big problem with that strategy is that it would hurt the Democrats' prospects in the general election. A study of drawn-out runoff primaries published last year by Alexander Fouirnaies and Andrew Hall concluded that they decreased a "party’s general-election vote share in the House and Senate by approximately 6 percentage points and decrease the party’s win probability by approximately 21 percentage points, on average." One has to be cautious extrapolating from House and Senate races to a presidential contest, but those penalties are stark enough that it's not worth the risk. We need to settle on a candidate.
Again, only Sanders and Biden can win a majority and avoid a messy convention fight that would demoralize some faction within the coalition. Sanders is closer to me in terms of policy and ideology than Biden, but I'm supporting his candidacy primarily because I think that he'd be a more formidable general election candidate against Trump.
Identifying as a democratic socialist will come with a cost, even if some of his supporters deny it. But according to political scientist John Sides, it is a relatively small one; studies have found that candidates perceived to be outside the mainstream may be penalized to the tune of 1-2 percent of the two-party vote share. Even small margins can have a huge impact on the outcome in a tight race, but Biden has his own potential weaknesses in a general election.
A strong Super Tuesday doesn't erase his penchant for embarrassing gaffes, nor his history of not respecting women's personal boundaries. His conduct during the Clarence Thomas hearings has only been lightly litigated during the primaries. His long legislative history offers a treasure trove of potential attack-lines.
But my bigger concern is that while Hunter Biden's work in Ukraine--and Biden's own efforts on behalf of the Obama administration to unseat a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor--is a bogus controversy fabricated by the right, the appearance of shadiness, promoted day and night by the conservative press, is probably sufficient to justify a criminal probe by William Barr's Justice Department, Senate hearings and the kind of lazy he-said/ she-said media coverage which made the Clintons' charitable foundation into a fuzzy pseudo-scandal that led some voters to conclude that they faced a choice of two equally corrupt candidates in 2016. There is compelling evidence that former FBI Director James Comey sank Hillary Clinton's campaign when he announced that he was re-opening the probe into her email server 11 days before the 2016 election. Trump learned an important lesson in that campaign.
Biden's weaknesses are just too similar to Trump's. Sanders' are very different.
He has been criticized by some racial justice advocates for an almost myopic focus on how wealthy elites game the system. That may have hindered him in the last primaries, and it may have exposed a blind spot for a guy who has represented the whitest state in the US, but it makes him a good choice to make the argument that Trump is one of the most corrupt presidents* in our history and articulate how his policies have hurt ordinary Americans. Democrats won big in 2018 talking about healthcare and other kitchen table issues with which Sanders has long been associated.
Sanders has railed against millionaires and billionaires gaming the system for their own benefit for decades, and while he’s been a reliable fundraiser for the Democratic Party, he doesn’t have the kind of history of jet-setting with wealthy elites that helped Trump and his allies hobble Clinton.
Sanders’ relentless focus on the issues he cares about would also serve him well in the face of the distorted attacks that the Democratic nominee will inevitably face–he’s adroit at staying on message. “Authenticity” is a vaguely defined feature beloved by pundits, but there is something to be said for Sanders’ sometimes curmudgeonly consistency–he “tells it like it is,” and voters tend to appreciate that.
For these reasons, I believe that Sanders is better equipped than Biden to remain focused and weather the blizzard of attacks that are coming for the Democratic nominee.
I don't have a crystal ball and that calculus may all be wrong, which brings me back to the fact that I'm more closely aligned with Sanders' politics. Sanders and Biden both come with risks, and both would be subject to an ugly Republican disinformation campaign. Which line of attack would gain more traction is unknowable. Biden has charted out a surprisingly progressive campaign for someone who wears the "centrist" label, but for those on the left, a Sanders presidency has far more potential upside.