It's been real, hasn't it? After 13 months of campaigning, during which time he was briefly but almost unanimously considered the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, it looks as if Bernie Sanders is finally calling it quits. On Wednesday afternoon his staff shot down an erroneous report that he had formally dropped out; it looks as if he'll wait to make that announcement sometime before the next primaries three weeks from now. To many observers it has been unclear why the junior senator from Vermont remained in the race after losing Michigan and Washington state two weeks ago, a defeat he followed with kind words about his fellow candidates and half-hearted conciliatory gestures towards the DNC.
The math for Sanders has looked all but impossible for a long time. The only hope that remained was some kind of mythical 1920s barnstorming campaign across the country — a final quixotic assault on the fortresses of the Democratic establishment. With this now out of the question and his only opportunities for shoring up his base and attempting to poach uneasy Biden supporters limited to YouTube, it is easy to understand why would finally give up. It is impossible to imagine terms more favorable to Sanders' only remaining opponent than a nation-wide ban on public appearances coupled with the directive that persons over the age of 60 keep to themselves.
Plenty of words (though almost certainly not as many as there might have been if the de facto end of the primary season had not coincided with the coronavirus pandemic) will be written about Sanders's brief rise and more or less instantaneous fall. Some observers will insist that Sanders lost largely because party insiders conspired against him, something that is belied by his poor showing even in states that he won, in some cases handily, in 2016. Others will give the credit to coronavirus, even though Biden's post-Nevada comeback had been secured long before this disease had established itself at the forefront of the American public imagination.
This is not to suggest that at the margins the DNC did not do everything in its power to prevent a Sanders nomination. The virtually unprecedented speed with which the remains of the largest field of technically plausible candidates in the history of these contests dropped out and endorsed Biden tells us everything we need to know about whom the party wanted at the top of the ticket. But this consolidation would not have taken place if the will of core Democratic primary voters, not just in the South but in states as far ranging as Massachusetts and Idaho, had not already been made clear.
What will become of Sanders' movement now that his presidential aspirations have been forestalled once again? Does he really represent the future of the Democratic party? A somewhat lesser-noticed contest on Tuesday hints at an answer. Whatever her objections to the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all, there is one issue that matters more to Nancy Pelosi than anything else: abortion. This was made clear on Tuesday when Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, an eight-term socially conservative Democratic incumbent and product of the old Chicago political machine, lost his primary race to Marie Newman, a progressive challenger endorsed by Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and numerous other high-profile left-wing politicians. There may not be much room for radical economic views in the Democratic Party, but in the coming realignment there is none at all for folks like Lipinski, who received virtually no support from his party's establishment. If progressives want to make inroads with the DNC, they must do what Sanders did not in 2016 (and did only half-heartedly in 2020) and put social issues at the forefront of their messaging.
This brings us to the other question about Sanders and his supporters: whether they will turn out for Biden in the fall. Here it is worth remembering that in some states (including Michigan) in 2016, the Green Party candidate Jill Stein won a share of the vote wider than Trump's eventual margin of victory. Sanders himself will almost certainly endorse Biden, just as he endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Will this make a difference? Who knows.
November seems very remote, longer away, indeed, than it felt two months ago. While it is possible at this stage to talk about how the general election might go — the actual range of possibilities is not unlimited — there are more pressing questions to be answered. If the most pessimistic forecasts prove correct, it is likely that the political conventions scheduled by both of our major political parties for this summer will have to be canceled, postponed, or held in what would almost certainly be the largest, most feedback-laden video calls in the history of Google Hangouts. For this small unhoped-for mercy, Sanders' supporters should be grateful. The reality of Biden's victory will not be setting in for a while.
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