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It’s Joe Biden’s Party Now

After Tuesday’s primaries, his nomination is a given. But what is Bernie Sanders’s endgame?

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is now, for all intents and purposes, over. Former Vice President Joe Biden scored decisive and relatively quick victories in Tuesday’s primaries in Florida and Illinois. With Arizona all but expected to follow this trend, Biden will add substantial numbers to a delegate haul that already had him on track to claim the necessary 1,991 delegates to win his party’s assent outright. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hasn’t been mathematically eliminated, but he’d need to defy the grim polling numbers with a string of massive upsets in the major remaining primaries. Such a turnaround would require an unimaginably extraordinary event.

Of course, Tuesday’s primaries took place in the shadow of one such event. Ohio voters were originally supposed to head to the polls, but Republican Governor Mike DeWine canceled the primary because of the pandemic. One lawmaker, Republican state Representative Jon Cross, criticized DeWine’s decision, insisting that it created a genuine “constitutional crisis.” But it’s hard to square the need for public safety and extreme social distancing with the sort of mass public gathering that elections entail.

Before last week’s primaries, it seemed possible the coronavirus could reset the Democratic primary. After Tuesday, though, the most significant way in which the crisis will affect the primary will be in escalating calls for its conclusion, coming in the form of demands that Sanders acknowledge the burgeoning reality of the race and end his campaign. Many will cite the need for party unity, as The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro has done. Others will cite public safety: Bernie Sanders is putting lives at risk by continuing his quixotic campaign! (Some pundits are already making that case.) The merits of these arguments notwithstanding, the last two weeks have made clear that the party has consolidated behind Biden, and Sanders should be under no illusion that he’ll somehow pull off some sort of contested convention gambit.

If anything, Biden’s clear path to the nomination will create the urgent need among Democratic Party elites to turn their attention fully toward President Trump and the case against his reelection. Here, too, the coronavirus has produced a golden political opportunity. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reported on Tuesday, extant polling on Trump’s coronavirus response has the president in dire straits: “[O]nly 37 percent of Americans have a good deal of trust in the information Trump tells them about coronavirus,” while “60 percent have little to no trust.” The truth of a pandemic—seen all too rivetingly in increasingly empty streets, shuttered businesses, and daily reports of shocked economic indicators—is potentially the rock around which the Trump administration cannot spin an easy escape.

But if history is any guide, Sanders is unlikely to be concerned with the Democratic Party’s messaging strategies, let alone inclined to quit the race this week. As numerous reports on Tuesday made clear, the dire electoral calculations have not changed Sanders’s private calculus, which is to remain in the race long enough—perhaps for its duration, as he did in 2016—to accrue as many delegates as possible to influence the party platform at the upcoming convention. The looming prospect of other primaries being postponed also creates the tantalizing possibility that with enough time, he might turn his fortunes around—though he came up well short of that goal during Sunday’s debate, which may have been his last and best chance at altering the race’s trajectory.

Beyond these concerns, Sanders may simply heed what he hears as a higher calling. As his campaign’s national co-chair, Nina Turner, told reporters on Monday, this presidential race is “the culmination of [his] life’s work,” and in all likelihood, it will be the last time he’ll command the political stage from such dizzying heights. The coming days (or weeks … or months) are the final ones in which he’ll have any chance to push Biden further left, toward bolder plans for addressing society’s deepest ills. Here, too, the current crisis provides a launching point for Sanders. As The New Republic’s Libby Watson noted, it seemed “as if it took the coronavirus crisis to spur Biden to take up the sort of policy planning that his fellow Democratic competitors have long made a feature of their campaigns,” and that what policies Biden has put forward do not contend with the reality that this pandemic is currently rewriting.

It’s interesting to consider how this primary might have gone if it had begun during, or in the wake of, the coronavirus crisis, as opposed to being violently interrupted by it. Certainly, recent events have gone a long way to revealing the cracks in American society that Sanders has tried throughout his two presidential runs to clarify, from the yawning gaps in our health care system to the precariousness of America’s working class. Many of the solutions being put forth—and upon which, perhaps, we may ultimately settle—bear the imprimatur of the political radical: direct payments to citizens, bailouts for small businesses, and medical interventions covered by the government.

More broadly, there is the very real chance that America will emerge from the coronavirus crisis in a place that’s dramatically different from where it was even weeks ago, amid the need to rebuild our economy, rapidly reemploy millions of Americans, and hold our leaders accountable for sleepwalking into a public health crisis. And these are just the immediate concerns of what will likely be a haggard nation. As Matt Stoller argued in Wired, the pandemic has potentially brought America to the cusp of a radical reimagining of how we perceive the nature of affluence in our society. “It means recognizing that wealth, real wealth, is not defined by accounting games on Wall Street,” he wrote, “but the ability to meet the needs of our own people.”

It may go down as one of the great ironies of this era that at the very moment when the perfect circumstances emerged to beckon forth a radical vision of the future, the best avatar for that brand of politics found himself inexorably fading from the American political scene. But tonight, voters reaffirmed their immediate preference for Biden’s resolution over Sanders’s revolution. The needs of our future may be falling into imperfect hands. The future will arrive, all the same.