Originally, the one-on-one showdown was scheduled in Arizona. In a surreal concession to the coronavirus disaster, the CNN-hosted affair will instead feature just Biden and Sanders onstage in Washington, D.C., with no studio audience.
We’re in a rare moment when boxing clichés are appropriate to politics. Sanders needs a knockout to stay alive. More than that, he needs people to see the knockout. He needs to hype the fight, which he hasn’t, suggesting he’s already given up.
It’s too much to expect him to say something like, “Sunday will be a bloodbath,” or “I’m gonna beat Joe so bad, he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.” There’s not a whole lot of Muhammad Ali in Bernie Sanders. There’s not a lot of Ali in most people.
It’s an insult that this debate is even happening. If Democrats felt something were at stake it would surely be canceled, as the increasingly confused Biden — the former VP ended a coronavirus speech with the salutation, “God bless our troops,” a scene straight out of a Mel Brooks movie — stands to gain little from a contentious live argument with a passionate, alert opponent.
That Biden’s handlers aren’t ducking the showdown suggests they expect a PG-rated affair, in which the breadth of Democratic opinion will be rolled out in a display of congenial sparring. Key Sanders figures like Jeff Weaver have conceded in advance, reassuring all that Bernie will not be delivering an “all-out assault.” Biden himself is signaling that he’s thinking past the primary race with lines like, “I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion.”
The media herd is also mostly moving on, as headlines like, “Sanders offers Biden a path to win over his movement” are popping up more and more. Prominent Democrats are offering saccharine olive-branch comments like the following from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:
“I don’t think Bernie Sanders should get out of the race…I’m a grassroots person… I know the enthusiasm of supporters for candidates and they want to see it play out for the ideas…”
Translation: We’re no longer worried, at all, about losing Sanders voters. Moreover, we think Bernie will be a good soldier and bring his followers in for the big win.
He shouldn’t. It would be a colossal betrayal of Bernie’s movement to cave now, rewarding four years of Democratic Party smears and scummery with a premature surrender that in one stroke would undo all the progress made in changing the national conversation.
There’s a reason Democratic strategists of the James Carville type spend long careers fetishizing independents and “the middle”: they know “moderates” will take their votes elsewhere if they’re not happy. There’s no such fear with progressives. Liberalus Americanus is an animal that always hands you its vote in the end, even after you’ve kicked in all its teeth.
Sanders lost any chance at the presidency the moment he started apologizing for his followers, handing outlets like the Daily Beast headlines like “Sanders calls Bernie Bros ‘Disgusting’” on a silver platter. (He also all but handed Biden the nomination when he renounced surrogate Zephyr Teachout’s op-ed about Biden’s “corruption” problem, but that’s another issue).
One doesn’t need a study like the one done by Harvard grad student Jeff Winchell to prove there’s nothing exceptional about Bernie’s online following. Anyone who’s been to a Sanders event knows the “Bro” narrative is a crock. The prototypical Sanders supporter is a young working parent overwhelmed by student or medical debt. They are women as often as men, and tend to be following Sanders in the first place because they’ve done everything by the book (including voting for traditional Democrats), yet are still in a hole. These are people with real problems, people who need help.
Bernie knows this, but allowed my jerkoff press colleagues to paint his supporters as an unruly mob of dude college students who listen to Chapo Traphouse and fire Twitter insults all day while living off a parent’s allowance.
He could have fought back. The first time someone like Jake Tapper asked him to apologize for “Bernie Bros,” Sanders should have asked Tapper to apologize for helping bank and health insurance CEOs avoid responsibility for predatory behavior with bullshit questions about Internet sockpuppets. Instead, Bernie in his natural terror of trivializing words like sexist and racist took the cheese, engaging the narrative and giving it life.
The storyline snowballed, culminating in scenes like one in early March that saw millionaires Elizabeth Warren and Rachel Maddow take turns bemoaning the awesome destructive power of Bernie’s Twitter commentators. The surprisingly shameless Warren went so far as to suggest that the campaign should devote resources to the ongoing refutation of online Bros.
The Warren-Maddow tête-à-tête was a perfect symbol of everything Sanders spent his career renouncing. Heading into a pandemic that left the richest country in the world paralyzed for lack of hospital beds, a functioning coverage system, and testing capability, our upper classes wept over rando Twitter meanies.
Whether he wants it to be or not, the coronavirus disaster is a pitch in Bernie’s wheelhouse, highlighting the massive structural obstacles we face precisely because our electoral system is weighted against serious people and in favor of industry-backed nitwits and sellouts.
Our medical bureaucracy is choked with waste and inefficiency and stays that way by mutual consent, with Republicans entirely opposed to health care reform, and Democrats merely opposed to any change that inconveniences insurers and pharmaceutical companies. The Sanders campaign was a promise to break up this conspiracy of inaction.
Democrats are right to be pissed that Donald Trump spent months dicking around and worrying that people were trying to use the coronavirus to hurt his approval rating, when he could have been taking the crisis seriously. It’s a “While Rome burned” moment. Any day now, we can expect Trump to nominate someone like Vince McMahon or Kid Rock to lead the Wuhan Task Force.
But people should equally be furious that Democrats spent the last year whining about online insults, Russians, the honor of Hunter Biden, and a host of other non-issues, when they could have been confronting real problems. They engaged in smear-driven diversion campaigns instead of self-auditing, and are anxious now to escape discussions about the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, to get back to defining political virtue as “better than Donald Trump,” tantamount to no standard at all.
Bernie shouldn’t let them. If this “quarantine debate” is to be his last stand, he should make it count. As has now been proven over and over, politicians like Sanders gain nothing by playing nice with the Pelosis and Bidens of the world. It buys neither policy considerations nor even temporary immunity from dirty tricks and slander.
Sunday night, he should hammer the meandering Biden as a symbol of the party’s determination to avoid necessary change. He should make sure the debate audience understands that in this moment of extreme crisis, Democrats threw their institutional might behind a man whose handlers appear afraid to let him outside more than a few minutes at time.
If this is the way the 2020 primary race ends, it’s pure black comedy, and for the sake of everything he’s tried to accomplish in the last four years, Sanders has to make sure audiences don’t see him as part of the punch line. There may not be time left to win. But he can at least stop apologizing for trying, and restore his movement’s dignity for the sake of the next person who tries to push it up the hill.