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A Case for Unity

Biden and Sanders should be working together to rethink what the Democrats stand for—not bickering over long-forgotten Senate votes.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

At times during CNN’s Democratic debate on Sunday night, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders seemed like feuding former vaudeville stars arguing over which of them muffed his lines in Buffalo 43 years ago. It was Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys brought to a debate stage.

In the midst of the worst pandemic in a century, does anyone care that Biden voted for the Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, which would, in theory, have led to cuts to Social Security? Or that Sanders voted against the Brady bill five times—a record that was in line with his rural Vermont House district in the 1990s but out of step with the national sentiments of the Democratic Party even then?

As Sanders lobbed practiced lines like “You were not a fan of Bowles-Simpson?” and Biden feigned righteous indignation when Sanders attacked him for accepting donations from billionaires, the two candidates, both aging war horses, sounded equally off-key.

Today, the Democratic race is effectively over, although the Bernie Brigades refuse to admit it. Biden’s current delegate lead (860 to 706) may appear modest, but Democratic Party rules, which Sanders saw as a formula for victory just a few weeks ago, make it very hard for a trailing candidate to catch up. Polls and portents also suggest that the former vice president will pad his lead after Tuesday’s primaries in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Arizona.

This isn’t the time to continue to bicker about votes cast a generation ago when some 2020 voters weren’t even born. The virus has upended 2020 politics—and we have reached the moment for Democrats to forge a united front.

Suddenly, the case against Donald Trump isn’t built around his trashing of democratic norms, his truckling to Vladimir Putin, or his treachery in shaking down Ukraine. With the world in lockdown and the stock market looking into the abyss, there is a far more urgent reason to defeat Trump in November: the health and, yes, the lives of millions of Americans who are in danger because of his ego-mad incompetence.

For all the glib talk about how Americans live in news silos, the stark differences in the ways that Democrats and Republicans are responding to the crisis remain stunning. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll released over the weekend found that while 79 percent of Democrats believe that the pandemic will grow worse, only 40 percent of Republicans do. In similar fashion, 56 percent of Democrats expect their lives to change in a major way. A paltry 26 percent of Republicans agree with this assessment.

It is hard to imagine a more dangerous response to public health than Trump’s cavalier comments on Sunday: “Relax. We’re doing great. This all will pass.” It’s like FDR saying after Pearl Harbor, “Relax. We’re doing great. We needed to rebuild the Pacific Fleet anyway.”

That’s why Democrats need to focus, in the days ahead, on ending the divisive ideological skirmishing between the Biden middle and the Sanders left.

Yes, Joe Biden is a flawed candidate with a history of compromise and accommodation. But the former vice president is working to atone for some of his policy mistakes. In 2005, he backed bankruptcy legislation that benefited the credit card companies based in his home state of Delaware, butting heads with Elizabeth Warren, then a Harvard professor who was rising to national prominence because of her militant opposition to the bill. This past weekend, in a show of good faith, Biden endorsed her sweeping bankruptcy reform plan to rewrite the 2005 law.

Sanders, in contrast, radiates the ideological purity of a Vermont senator who has not faced a serious political race this century. As Sanders said smugly during the debate, referring to Biden’s record on bankruptcy legislation, “I don’t have to rethink my position because that’s what leadership is about—having the guts to take an unpopular vote.” Of course, it is a lot easier to have the guts to take on the financial establishment when Ben & Jerry’s is considered a major home-state industry.

There is another important reason—beyond beating Trump—to abandon these stale fights over long-ago Senate votes and largely forgotten speeches. The world is changing faster than we can imagine. And when life (knock wood) returns to normal, national attitudes about the proper role of government and the steps needed to protect the most vulnerable members of society may have changed for good.

In the midst of the crisis, it is impossible to predict what sorts of problems a Democratic president (presumably Biden) would be facing in January 2021. At this point in 2008, Barack Obama was giving plenty of policy speeches, blissfully unaware that the entire economy would collapse with Lehman Brothers in September of that year. All we know for sure is that Biden’s priorities will shift as the crisis unfolds, just as Obama’s did. All of Biden’s position papers—whether on health care, taxation, government spending, or even foreign policy—should therefore be seen as works in progress.

That is why the Biden campaign should dramatically increase the size of its policy teams to embrace those on the Sanders left. This is not about playing traditional politics, nor is it about writing a Democratic platform to include muddled multiclause sentences that appear to split the difference on Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. Instead, the goal should be to start rethinking—almost from scratch—the guiding ideology of the Democratic Party for the coming decade.

Conventional politicians, like Joe Biden, have risen to the occasion before. When Franklin Roosevelt first ran for president in 1932, he campaigned on a mainstream economic platform built around balancing the budget. The New Deal was invented in response to the emergency of the Depression rather than derived from off-the-shelf position papers.

Republicans, with their credulous faith in the snake-oil pronouncements coming from the White House, refuse to fully accept that we’re all in this together. But Democrats, for the most part, do. That’s why I desperately hope that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders can come together—at a safe distance of six feet—if the results from Tuesday’s primaries turn out to be as conclusive as expected.