As U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders drops out of the presidential race on Wednesday, he leaves behind a Democratic Party reshaped by his two White House bids.
No candidate this year, or in modern campaigns past, has hammered the issue of the nation’s wealth inequality as vociferously and effectively as Sanders. He has attacked the barriers to health care, education and housing, raising the pitch of the debate to an unprecedented level.
The challenge now for the party’s presumptive nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, will be to embrace Sanders’ issues — and his followers — while hewing a more politically and financially pragmatic approach that’s palatable for most Americans.
The anxiety and insecurity of poverty that Sanders sought to address have been laid bare by the coronavirus shutdown of much of the country’s economy. In the weeks and months ahead, as we plunge deeper into recession, more people will struggle to pay their bills and access health care.
The presidential campaign, now solely between Biden and President Donald Trump, will be like no other. Trump’s mercurial behavior was already certain to make the race unpredictable. The pandemic and the nation’s economic implosion will make it triply so.
Biden will bring the empathy that Trump lacks. But, to succeed, Biden must build a big tent — and for that he needs Sanders and his followers. Conversely, for Sanders to succeed in his goals, now that he has left the big stage, he needs Biden.
He has no alternative. On the issues Sanders cares about, the nation has regressed under Trump, as the president has sought to undermine rather than improve upon President Barack Obama’s health care plan; increased the economic divide with tax cuts for the wealthy that drove the country deeper into debt while the economy was strong; and undermined national attempts to address climate change.
While Sanders’ purist progressive campaign was unfettered by the reality of the nation’s political map, Biden seems to recognize that the key to Electoral College victory will lie in centrist swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. Biden doesn’t have the luxury, nor does he have the political inclination, to indulge in the same uncompromising approach.
The question will be whether Sanders can accept that. Whether he embraces Biden — only figuratively in these times of physical distancing — as he failed to do with Hillary Clinton four years ago. Whether he acknowledges the political reality that, while Biden might not be the senator’s perfect candidate, he at least cares about the same issues.
What Sanders does next, in the days and weeks and months to come, will help determine the fate of Biden’s presidential quest. While Sanders was never able to expand his base and increase turnout of young voters as he promised, he nonetheless has a large and loyal following. He must now marshal them behind Biden as he failed to do for Clinton.
To succeed in his goals, Sanders must convince his followers, from their perspective, to not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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