Dressed in a dark suit and a muted tie, with his flyaway hair neatly combed, Bernie Sanders looked funereal as he belatedly read a statement to the media on Wednesday afternoon—17 hours after the polls closed in the Michigan primary.
The Vermont senator initially struck a rueful tone: “Last night, obviously, was not a good night for our campaign from a delegate point of view. We lost in the largest state up for grabs yesterday, the state of Michigan. We lost in Mississippi, Missouri, and Idaho.” But Sanders quickly began to accentuate the positive, “We are winning the generational debate. While Joe Biden continues to do very well with older Americans, especially those people over 65, our campaign continues to win the vast majority of the votes of younger people.”
This is statistically true (in Michigan, Sanders handily won voters younger than 45), but he sounded a bit like a general who has lost the battle and the war bragging about the athleticism of his cavalry. Though he vowed to fight on and expose Biden’s timidity on the issues, he no longer has a plausible route to victory at the Milwaukee convention.
In Michigan, where he pulled off a poll-defying upset four years ago, roaring back from a 20-point deficit in the surveys to edge Hillary Clinton, the Vermont socialist failed to carry a single countyot even Washtenaw, the home of both the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. When I ran in the Democratic primary for Congress as a 25-year-old University of Michigan grad student in the 1970s, I swept Washtenaw County, with its more than 50,000 college students, plus faculty, administrators, and support staff. If Sanders couldn’t muster more than 45 percent of the vote in the primary there, it should be time to put on the record player Bob Dylan singing, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
After Tuesday night, the undeniable truth is that the entire Sanders campaign was predicated on a gauzy myth. If there were ever hidden armies of would-be Democratic voters yearning for a visionary presidential nominee uncontaminated by the compromises of life, then these Bernie Brigades still remain well camouflaged.
Sure, as Sanders stressed in his Wednesday statement, some of his policies are popular with primary voters. In Michigan, exit polls showed that replacing private health insurance with a government program had the support of nearly 60 percent of the people who went to the polls on Tuesday. But since the February 29 South Carolina primary, most Democratic primary voters have been unwilling to buy the entire Sanders package: politically unattainable goals, such as canceling $1.6 trillion in college debt, combined with attacks on corporate interests and the “billionaire class.”
After Sanders’s two presidential runs, voters possess a pretty clear-eyed sense of who he is. He is a gadfly, a goad, and a left-wing Pied Piper. These can be valuable traits in politics since the moderate, accommodationist wing of the Democratic Party sometimes needs outside pressure to force it to focus on causes larger than the next election. But Sanders was never cut out to be a traditional president forging alliances, brokering compromises, and dealing with the messiness of governing in a bitterly divided democracy. That simply isn’t Bernie’s skill set. And his lifelong rigidity would have become an even larger governing problem if he ever succeeded Trump as president.
What Democratic voters have created by rallying around Biden is the American equivalent of the Popular Front, which, in the 1930s, was a broad, multiparty alliance against fascism in France and other democratic countries. The exit polls from Michigan echo a sentiment found in almost all primaries—voters, by a 58-to-37 percent margin, want a candidate who can defeat Trump more than someone who agrees with them on all issues.
Biden would, of course, be a flawed nominee. From now until November, Democratic voters will be nervous every time Biden begins a sentence since no one (including the former vice president) knows where it might end up. Hunter Biden’s $50,000-a-month payments from a Ukrainian energy company may have been legal, but they are impossible to defend. And over a nearly 50-year career in national politics, Biden has cast many votes and made countless public statements that sound off-key in a 2020 context.
But it is also easy to see Biden as the leader of the broadest possible electoral coalition against Donald Trump. It would stretch from African American voters juggling two jobs in difficult times to never-Trump Republicans in Washington think tanks. It would encompass angry 19-year-old voters (who recognize that Trump’s reelection threatens everything from abortion rights to democracy itself) and 78-year-old moderates who long for competence when a crisis like coronavirus hits and who hope for an end to the vitriol from the Oval Office.
With the Democratic race all but over, pundits and politicos will be peddling their private lists of all the ways that Biden has to reach out to younger voters, Hispanics, and other groups that have so far preferred other candidates. But there is also a danger that any attempt to remake himself as a more “woke” figure in the hopes of wooing 22-year-olds will seem painfully insincere rather than inclusive.
In truth, the best way to create Democratic unity is to remind voters every day of the threat Trump would pose if elected to a second term.
Sanders will undoubtedly fight on in the hopes that he can shape the Democratic platform. The problem with that strategy is that, even if Biden were to commit to supporting, say, Medicare for All, as a price for party harmony in Milwaukee, it would be a meaningless pledge. Currently, fewer than one-third of the Democrats in the Senate support eliminating private insurance. And if Chuck Schumer succeeds in getting the chamber back in Democratic hands, the new additions to their ranks are likely to be moderates like John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Mark Kelly of Arizona, and Steve Bullock of Montana, none of whom support Medicare for All.
For the moment, Democratic voters deserve to take pride in what they have accomplished in the less than two weeks since South Carolina’s primary. They have, in effect, selected a nominee with a minimum of rancor and discord. While there will be bumps ahead on the road to Milwaukee, this quick, de facto victory is the best possible outcome for Democrats hoping for victory over Trump in November.