Bernie vs. Biden? Boring.
Is this really the best Democrats can do?
Now that Super Tuesday is over, the race for the party's nomination has essentially narrowed down to two candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden. While both men are preferable to the incumbent president, I'm finding it difficult to muster much more than the minimum enthusiasm needed to vote for either one.
Let's start with the weaknesses both share. They're old white guys, and there's reason to believe both are in less than optimal condition to take on the demanding job of governing the country: Sanders had a heart attack not too long ago; Biden hasn't always appeared to be that sharp during his debating performances this primary season. It's an ongoing pastime for political observers to note how presidents seem to age quickly in office. What will the White House do to candidates who are legitimately elderly and who will be on the verge of being octogenarians in January 2021?
Even if both men were in the prime of life, they would still be deeply flawed. Both offer the public implausible theories of how they'll govern. Biden, for instance, promises that his election will somehow bring the Republican Party to its senses — that the polarization which has defined American politics in the 21st century will somehow recede so that he can get stuff done. He is wrong. But Sanders is staking his election — and his eventual ability to govern in the face of GOP opposition — on a massive turnout of young voters that, so far, hasn't really materialized. No surprise: Young voters almost never turn out at hoped-for levels.
Biden may represent the status quo and Sanders may offer radical reform, but without better plans for governing, neither will amount to much more than a caretaker president.
Each man brings some unique weaknesses to the table. Biden has been in Washington, D.C., so long — nearly 50 years — that he has naturally been on the wrong side of history a few times, from supporting the disastrous Iraq War to failing Anita Hill. If you think the pre-Trump status quo was problematic, then Biden is problematic. Sanders, meanwhile, hints at having undemocratic tendencies: His unwillingness to provide full disclosure about his heart attacks and his praise for dictators are lightly Trumpian, as is his willingness to take a different stance on the Democratic Party's nomination rules depending on what benefits him most.
Are these defects disqualifying? No. But they are troubling.
It is also true, however, that every candidate in every race comes with some flaws — election years routinely bring laments from the public about having to choose the lesser of two evils, or wishes that the vice presidential nominee was actually at the top of the ticket. We relentlessly dissect the people who offer themselves up for public service, and with good reason, but it probably means that their negative qualities are magnified beyond what is always reasonable. What's more, almost nobody makes it through a career in Washington without making compromises.
And to be fair, both Biden and Sanders clearly have their appeal. Biden isn't just the "un-Bernie," as so many observers seem to believe; he has a reputation for decency that seems to be his chief weapon in a campaign against the endlessly indecent President Trump. Sanders, meanwhile, appears to have a genuine zeal to help Americans who have been left behind in the modern economy, but who still have bills to pay. I'm not much interested in scolding people who would vote for either man. Everybody is trying to reach for a better future in the way that makes the most sense for them.
The real issue is that the choices have been narrowed down to these two men while roughly half the country is still waiting to weigh in on the nominee. My own state of Kansas won't complete its Democratic primary process until May 2 — we won't have the range of candidates to choose from that, say, Iowa and New Hampshire voters had. I could still vote for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), but by then, nearly two months from now, that vote will probably be a howl into the void. Heck, by then, Biden or Sanders might already have won enough pledged delegates to become the presumptive nominee.
One solution to the problem of being underwhelmed by the choices is to just sit it out. It is perfectly legitimate not to vote if you don't like the options on offer. But I'd rather find a productive solution instead of sitting aside in protest.
Back in May of 2019, when Democrats had too many presidential candidates — roughly 20 — I suggested a "pre-primary primary" election day so that voters could shape the nomination process directly instead of letting the media and campaign donors choose for them. That still makes sense for choosing the top tier of potential nominees from the full range of options. After that, it's time to scrap the state-by-state primary system entirely, and instead hold a single day national primary so that all interested voters can help decide their party's nominee.
Such a primary system would do more than quiet dissatisfied late-season primary voters like me. It would also hasten the sometimes-messy process of achieving party unity after the nominee has been decided, and it would force candidates to appeal to a wide spectrum of voters — as they must in the general election — instead of pandering to the particular interests of unrepresentative states that vote early in the process.
Unfortunately, such a system isn't in place this year. Democratic voters in the remaining states will mostly choose between Biden and Sanders. For some voters, that won't be a terribly satisfying choice — but it's the choice we have.
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