Biden and Bernie

The writing is on the wall for Bernie Sanders, not in some graffiti art splash of color but in stark black and white. He is reported to be assessing his presidential campaign after decisive defeats in yesterday's Arizona, Florida, and Illinois primaries that enabled Joe Biden to build on an already commanding lead in delegates. If Sanders is sincere about the imperative of defeating Donald Trump in November, as I believe he is, he will end his campaign and ally with Biden to unify the Democratic Party and move on to the fall campaign. Debates over ideological differences can wait until the more urgent business of dealing with the pandemic and deposing our impeached president is finished.


I would like to see Bernie stop dithering and throw his support behind Biden sooner rather than later because the progressive faithful cling to the conviction that Bernie's bid for the Democratic nomination was sabotaged, submarined, and otherwise waylaid by the nefarious machinations of billionaires, corporate elites, the Democratic establishment, the mainstream media, and assorted stooges and toadies, of whom I presume I would be counted as one. Their shoulders are put to the wheel to undermine Biden in furtherance of Bernie's campaign and the cause of democratic socialism.


The turn to Joe Biden since the South Carolina primary bears out my earlier speculation that in the primaries and caucuses prior to South Carolina the array of moderate candidates took more votes from one another than they took from Sanders. Bernie's percentage of the vote in those early states turned out to be a ceiling, not a base on which he could build. I believe Biden is the better candidate because Bernie's loyal cadres remain a minority within the Democratic Party and a smaller minority in the population at large. Of course, the next time Bernie and the editors at Jacobin ask for my opinion will be the first time (borrowing a formulation from Terrence Moore, former sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution whose columns I read with delight when I lived in that city).


Bernie's strategy for Sunday's debate was to push Biden to embrace an agenda that failed to set Sanders on a path to the nomination. Bernie and his camp push the line that they are losing the electability debate but winning on ideas. The Democratic Party has moved to the left since 2016. It fair to give credit to Bernie for his role in that. He is an articulate and passionate advocate for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, guaranteed tuition and debt-free public colleges, universities, HBCUs, Minority Serving Institutions and trade-schools for all (Bernie's official campaign website), and other progressive causes.


Maybe, though, the party's move to the left is not all about Bernie. For decades, the right has been far more effective than the left in establishing the conventionally accepted talking points in the national debate about issues, policies, and the role of government. As a consequence positions associated with what is designated the "moderate center" have shifted steadily to the right, notably during the Reagan era but dating back to the late 1960s through efforts underwritten by a coterie of radical-libertarian, billionaire oligarchs. With the Democratic Party's move to the left the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction. Bernie is important. It might not be too much to say he is a catalyst. He is able to be an effective catalyst because many Americans are for a variety of reasons more open and receptive to his message than they would have been twenty or thirty years ago.


There is now broad support for universal health care, accompanied by substantial disagreement even among Democrats about the best way to go about achieving it. Bernie is right when he says that the pandemic exposes the dysfunctionality of the American health care system. During Sunday's debate he rightly said that what we have to do now is confront the crisis, but he could not keep himself from using the crisis to hammer away at his case for universal health care, Medicare for All as the way to provide it, and assorted points on his economic agenda. The country broadly is with Bernie on the first part, the moral and pragmatic case for universal health care, but not about how best to provide it. Here Biden was on point. Right now we must focus squarely on the health and economic aspects of the pandemic. The debate over health care can wait for another day. At present it is a divisive distraction from more urgent concerns.


Bernie and others argue that Biden must move left to energize young people and bring out the youth vote without explaining why young people who opted not to come out for Bernie in the primaries would rally for Biden in the general election. Some of Bernie's people will not vote for Biden under any circumstances. The challenge for Biden is to give something to the less ideologically rigid Sanderistas without driving away primary voters who came out for him in large numbers. As for the climate crisis, that will not go away.


Biden is actively trying to reach out to people who are not enthusiastic about him and build a coalition. Last week he offered olive branches with his endorsement of Elizabeth Warren's bankruptcy reform plan and his support for making public colleges and universities tuition free for students from families with incomes up to $125,000 (part of a much broader plan for education beyond high school laid out on Biden's official campaign website). Bernie invites people to join his campaign and sign on to his agenda, but he does precious little to acknowledge and address good-faith concerns of individuals who are not committed lock, stock, and two smoking barrels to his ideology.


Biden is being pressed by the left to move left with the selection of a progressive running mate who will "balance the ticket." It may be uncharitable of me to wonder if in other circumstances these same voices from the left would call on Bernie to balance his ticket by choosing a moderate candidate for vice president. Biden will be better served by picking a pragmatic, moderately liberal-left, younger individual simpatico to his political program and instincts.


Bill Scher at Politico analyzes twelve potential VP candidates (Biden's Top 12 Running Mates, Ranked). He puts Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar as one-two at the top of the list and makes a good observation about Elizabeth Warren at number 11:


Warren has a lot of strong attributes, but being a deferential team player is not one of them. Besides, if Warren wants a job with real power that could clamp down on bad behavior from Wall Street, she should lobby for Treasury secretary or attorney general.


Takeaways from Sunday's debate. The one-on-one encounter with no studio audience was a marked improvement over its predecessors.


Both candidates had good moments, and each had moments when he did not distinguish himself. The latter were most in evidence when they hammered one another about positions and votes from years and decades past that might now be politically damaging.


Bear with me while I quote at some length a few examples from PolitiFact (Fact-checking the Sanders-Biden primary debate) The entire article is worth reading.


Bernie Sanders: "You have been on the floor of the Senate time and time again talking about the need to cut Social Security, Medicare and veterans' programs."


This leaves out context and ignores Biden’s subsequent positions in opposition to such cuts.

Sanders emphasizes old statements by Biden, some decades ago, that show a willingness to slow spending in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. (Sanders calls this a "cut.")

Biden called out Sanders during the debate for an ad "saying I'm opposed to Social Security, that PolitiFact says is a flat lie, and that The Washington Post said is a flat lie." PolitiFact rated the ad about Biden’s record over 40 years Mostly False.


Bernie Sanders: "The Fed gave trillions and trillions of dollars in zero-interest loans to every financial institution in this country and central banks all over the world."


This is not fully accurate. Sanders’ claim oversimplifies a complex government response to the financial crisis of 2008.


By our calculations, the total spent to stem the crisis ranged from roughly $1.4 trillion to about $3.1 trillion, depending on whether you count direct government bailouts authorized by Congress and the Federal Reserve’s purchase of mortgage securities in addition to the Fed’s recession lending programs.


But while the biggest Wall Street players benefited greatly, banks and other businesses across the country also got some help. Finally, the interest rates for most of the loans — and there were different types — were very low. But they were not zero, according to Fed data.


Joe Biden: "Part of that was bailing out the automobile industry — saving thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs over time. (Sanders) voted against that as well."


This claim is Half True.


Sanders did vote against a set of funds that financed most of the auto bailout — though the funds’ primary purpose was bailing out Wall Street firms, which Sanders strongly opposed.

But Biden left listeners with the impression that Sanders’ opposed bailing out the auto industry. Sanders voted in favor of providing auto companies with $14 billion, which was separate from the Wall Street bailout funds he opposed. That standalone measure failed.


Joe Biden: "I wrote the first climate change bill that was in the Congress, PolitiFact said was a game changer."


Yes, and no. We rated True his claim in May 2019 when he said he was "one of the first guys to introduce a climate change bill."


But we did not describe his bill as a "game changer." Experts gave him credit for being an early supporter of climate change action, but also warned against inflating his bill’s impact.


And that's a wrap, all I am up for at the moment.


Hang in there, my friends. Take care of yourselves and your families, friends, neighbors, and strangers too as best you can.


Keep the faith.

David Matthews

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