Unless I misunderstood what Bernie Sanders was saying in his day-after-the-latest-shellacking speech, I think we can take away two things.
One, the Bernie Revolution lives.
Two, the Bernie campaign, not so much.
Sanders didn’t drop out of the race. He didn’t concede. He didn’t say victory in the Democratic primary was impossible. And the truth is, those true believers in the Bernie Revolution wouldn’t allow for any of those possibilities, not just yet.
What Sanders did say was that there will be a debate Sunday night in Phoenix — the first (and possibly last) one-on-one debate between Sanders and Joe Biden — and that Bernie intends to press his progressive case for what must be done after the most important thing is done — which is to defeat Donald Trump. Sanders made that very clear. Everything else is secondary.
In other words, this debate will not only be a vigorous defense of the progressive movement and not only be a demand that Biden — “My friend Joe,” as Sanders repeatedly put it — explain how his ideas will meet the challenge, but, mostly, it seems as if Sanders will give Biden a chance to win over the young people who have been the backbone of the Bernie Revolution by embracing key parts of Sanders’ platform.
You can see this is Biden’s opportunity as much as it is one last shot for Sanders, who says he’s winning the ideology race if not the electability race. And in Biden’s speech Tuesday night, he pointed to the necessity of Democratic unity and had only nice things to say about Bernie and his supporters.
The math is the math, and the math in the 10 days that shook the political world since South Carolina shows that Democrats believe that Biden is the safer choice. In his speech, Sanders conceded that that is exactly what happened. It’s pretty clear, too, that the coronavirus threat, which the World Health Organization is now calling a pandemic, brings the safe-choice alternative into even greater relief.
As Sanders pointed out, he’s not just winning with those voters in their 20s or even those in their 30s. He’s winning handily in the under-45 race. He has got the future even if Biden has the math. If Biden is to beat Trump in November — by which time Trump will make this race even uglier than the last — he needs that future of the Democratic Party voting for him in November.
What we know is that we’re not in 2016 any more. In 2016, when Bernie fought Hillary Clinton to the bitter end and beyond — when bitterness from Bernie supporters would never quite go away — it was, as we say, a more innocent time. No one thought Trump could possibly win the presidency. The risks of hanging on for Sanders seemed, well, far less risky.
This is 2020, and the fact of Donald Trump is all-encompassing, the same Donald Trump, who, just as one example, has left the U.S. coronavirus response in a shambles. People are calling this Trump’s Katrina. Others, calling it Trump’s 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, say it’s far worse. His response has basically been to stay calm — I can’t resist this from the “Animal House” all-is-well scene — and it will all go away. And the main thing we are told we can do is buy stocks so the market will recover and Trump can once again bask in its glory.
The scientists and doctors, meanwhile, are warning us to do what we can to stem the spread of the disease before we lose all control.
You should read this stunning New York Times story of the month lost in Seattle due to CDC bureaucracy. It’s just one example of how the response was not up to the task. If the scientists and doctors are to be believed, this virus won’t go away in April — as Trump used to like to say — and the danger grows by the day.
And so, because it’s not 2016 any more, Sanders gets a do-over. The debate is Sunday. Anyone who has seen Joe Biden in this campaign’s debate tour — I believe this will be the 11th — knows he’s not a good debater and, in a one-on-one contest, that becomes all the more problematic. When Sanders noted Wednesday that he was staying in the race, there were things he didn’t say. He didn’t talk about Iraq. He didn’t talk about Social Security. He made the case for his case and said, in effect, he hoped Biden would be listening.
But Sanders still faces the confounding math. Biden didn’t simply win in Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi. He was winning in every county in those three states. He won college graduates. He won blue-collar workers. He won African Americans. He won suburban women. He won and he won and he won.
We can all remember — it was not even two weeks ago —when the talk was of a brokered convention and Bernie as a sure thing to win a plurality with as little as 35 percent of the vote. But then, one by one, the other candidates dropped out — no, it was not a conspiracy; yes, it did turn into a stop-Bernie movement — and the math quickly changed. When Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren were overwhelmed in Super Tuesday, they dropped out, too, leaving it simply Bernie vs. Biden.
And the math is not only the delegate math — which Nate Silver says now shows Biden winning a majority of the delegates 99 percent of the time — but the national-polling math, which now shows Biden with a nearly 20-point lead.
Sanders will decide where the revolution goes from here. There were people — James Carville, Jim Clyburn — who were calling for Sanders to end his campaign now. The calls are presumptuous. This is Sanders’ call, and no one should understand that better than Biden, who faced similar math himself before South Carolina happened and everything, stunningly and maybe semi-miraculously, happened from there.
But after Sunday’s debate comes Super Tuesday III. It doesn’t look like that Tuesday will be any better for Sanders than the last two. One of the states is Florida where, if recent history is any guide, Biden will win in a rout. Two other big states are Illinois and Ohio, where the demographics in both cases — remember these are Democratic primaries, not general election votes — look even better for Biden than Michigan did. In Arizona, Sanders will probably score well among a significant Hispanic population, but he also has to face a large older population, which have been, along with African American voters, Biden’s most reliable supporters.
At this point, Biden is favored in each of the states, all of which Clinton carried against Bernie in 2016. That may be when it ends. But the timing is not all that important now. What matters is how it ends, and it appears that Sanders wants it to end well.