Against overwhelming Establishment support for Biden, the left must resist the idea that Biden is a more credible opponent of Trump than Sanders, argues Kate O'Neil
After a year of campaigning among a ‘crowded field’ of candidates, the Democratic Party establishment has finally coalesced around a single moderate candidate to run against socialist Bernie Sanders for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination. This week former vice-president Joe Biden, after three devasting defeats in early primaries, won ten of fifteen state contests, catapulting him to first place in the race ahead of Sanders. He now has the votes of 547 delegates at the party’s national convention in August to Sanders’ 484, with all other candidates either out of the race or trailing far behind. It is finally a two-horse contest.
But Biden’s comeback is much more the product of political realignment than any surge in popularity or strengthening of his campaign. The candidate’s lack of vision and charisma has hampered it from the beginning. His fundraising and campaign organisation, in fact, were notoriously weak going into Super Tuesday, and many predicted Sanders would come out of the primaries the clear winner.
Rather, his sweeping victory in South Carolina last Saturday—the first time he had ever won a state in three times running for president—convinced three fellow moderates to fold their campaigns and two of them, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, to throw their weight behind Biden a day ahead of yesterday’s fourteen-state ‘Super Tuesday’ primary. A slew of other politicians followed suit, and Biden was handed votes on a platter. He even won in two states, Massachusetts and Minnesota, where he hadn’t campaigned. After his own poor showing yesterday, billionaire Michael Bloomberg too has quit the race to back Biden.
With forty percent of delegates now decided and a frontrunner for moderates to unify behind, we can expect all the benefits of the liberal establishment to flow Biden’s way—from endorsements to PAC money to favourable media coverage to the support of unelected ‘super delegates’ at the party convention.
From here on out it is an uphill battle for Sanders, but it will likely be a close race to the finish. Even the New York Times predicts the primaries could ‘soon be a slog’. At the moment, Sanders is forecasted to win some larger states like Michigan and Washington and finish neck-and-neck with Biden in Ohio and Wisconsin. And although Biden has proved to be a bigger draw among older, moderate, suburban and Black voters, Sanders continues to be far more popular among voters under 30, Latinos, liberals and urbanites.
The Biden campaign’s greatest weapon may be the argument that, now that he is the frontrunner, he is more electable than Sanders in a contest with Trump. Following this logic, Sanders will be condemned for dividing the forces that should be rallied to fight the greater evil. This will hold a powerful sway over moderate and liberal voters alike. If Sanders is to compete, he will need to take this argument on directly and forcefully.
Firstly, the campaign must continue to debunk the idea that Biden is more electable than Sanders. Clinton’s loss and Trump’s victory in 2016 was evidence that a moderate is not necessarily your best bet in an increasingly polarised political context. In a number of important swing states, like Wisconsin and Michigan, Sanders beat Clinton by a wider margin in the Democratic primaries than Trump beat Clinton in the general election, leading many to conclude that Trump may not have won if Sanders had been the candidate then. It is also worth taking into consideration the number of new constituents the grassroots Sanders campaign is bringing to the polls. Many of these are low-wage workers, immigrants and people of colour who have been alienated from politics and may not make the effort to come out to vote for a candidate promising little change to the status quo. Moreover, just because the establishment is supporting Biden, it does not make him personally more effective as a candidate. As one commentator wrote:
any suggestion that Mr. Biden is now a risk-free option would appear to contradict the available evidence…He is no safer with a microphone, no likelier to complete a thought without exaggeration or bewildering detour….In fact, Mr. Biden has blundered this chance before — the establishment front-runner; the last, best hope for moderates — fumbling his initial 2020 advantages in a hail of disappointing fund-raising, feeble campaign organization and staggering underperformance.
Secondly, while continuing to aim its fire at the billionaire class, the Sanders campaign must rejig its message to call out Biden’s complicity in the transfer of wealth to the top one percent. As a senator in the Clinton era, Biden was very close to the banking industry. He voted for the neoliberal NAFTA, advocated cuts to the state pension and healthcare benefit, and backed the Wall Street bailout in 2008. He is also a supporter of the death penalty and voted for several ‘tough-on-crime’ laws that swelled the prison population with a disproportionately high number of Black inmates. And he served as vice president in the Obama administration, which to this day has deported more immigrants than Trump. Biden is an easy target for a populist, and Sanders understands this. 'What this campaign, I think, is increasingly about,' he said in his post-primary speech last night, 'is which side are you on.'
Finally, the campaign must renew its commitment to strengthening the activist base that supports it, calling for rallies, strike solidarity and other actions to keep the public eye on both the strength of support for Sanders and the vision of a just society that it stands for. It should seek endorsements from more unions, social justice organisations and prominent activists as well, many of whom may have supported Elisabeth Warren but will find a natural home in Bernie’s progressive campaign. This will be key not only to winning votes but also to ensuring that the US left, which has made such enormous strides under the Sanders campaign, continues to grow and fight - regardless of the outcome in August.
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