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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Time To Fight Harder Than We’ve Ever Fought Before

The delegate race is neck-and-neck. We need to get every progressive to back Bernie immediately.

Joe Biden bounced back on Super Tuesday, which should worry us all. While a big Bernie Sanders win in California meant Biden is only a little ahead in delegates, Biden scored upset victories in places like Massachusetts, Maine, and Minnesota, and had a strong showing across the South. The reversal of fortune for Biden was rapid: After Bernie’s dominance in Nevada, and Biden’s miserable performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders had been the seven-in-10 favorite to win the most delegates. Party leaders freaked out, trying to figure out some way they could stop Bernie. With four centrists in the race splitting the field (Bloomberg, Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg) it had been unclear how to keep Sanders from reaching at least a strong plurality of delegates. Then, an opportunity arose: Buoyed by a strong showing among older African American voters in South Carolina, Biden once again appeared viable. Democratic leaders seized the moment: Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg quickly dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden, Biden received a sudden “tsunami of earned media” (a.k.a. “free publicity”) worth tens of millions of dollars, and Barack Obama quietly “sent the signal” that it was time for the anti-Bernie contingent to rally around Biden. 

The result: Biden defied the polls and swept 10 out of 14 Super Tuesday States. And with Michael Bloomberg—winning only the tiny island of American Samoa after spending $400 million—dropping out of the race, the “centrist lane” of the primary is no longer split. Things are about to get very tough indeed for Bernie Sanders. 

But we also need to be careful. The media narrative around Super Tuesday will be about Biden’s “dominance,” but the most critical fact about the primary right now is just how close and uncertain things now are. Biden had fallen so far behind that he urgently needed a result like Tuesday’s to catch up. Now he is slightly ahead, but only slightly, and as the New York Times noted, Sanders “would need to defeat Biden by only three points in the remaining two-thirds of the country to overtake him.” That’s a critical fact that all of Sanders’ supporters need to note, because Biden and his team will be rushing to declare the race over and encourage everyone to fall in line behind Biden. They will want Sanders people to become demoralized and give up, and not notice that they can still win. This is, after all, how things look right now: 

It’s a gap of 65 delegates, with dozens of states left to vote. California is not even fully counted and is likely to give Bernie more delegates. Bernie was ahead after Nevada, Biden is slightly ahead now, the race continues but is basically neck-and-neck. The trouble, of course, is that Biden now has some formidable advantages going forward: Democrats who no longer see him as a failed or risky bet will finally endorse and campaign for him. He will find it easier to raise money. He will have “momentum.” Bloomberg’s exit will bring him new voters. Sanders may find upcoming states even harder to win than the Super Tuesday contests. But the one thing that would guarantee a Sanders loss is giving up and going home, which is exactly what Joe Biden hopes we will now do.

I think what is clear is that Sanders isn’t going to win unless a few things change, and change quickly. First, and most obviously, Sanders really needs Elizabeth Warren to drop out and endorse him. The fact that the progressive bloc has been split between Sanders and Warren has kept Sanders from being able to take advantage of the similar split in the centrist bloc. And now the centrist split has disappeared, meaning that having activists and labor leaders divided between Sanders and Warren is more damaging than ever. Warren performed dismally on Tuesday, as she has throughout the primaries, even coming in third in her home state of Massachusetts. But Biden’s margin of victory in several states was significantly smaller than Warren’s vote total, and if Warren had made a strong effort to get her voters to vote for Sanders instead, and had not launched such hostile attacks on Sanders, it’s likely he would have picked up states like Massachusetts, Texas, Maine, and Minnesota. That would have given him a much better chance of beating Biden overall. If this continues any longer, with Bloomberg gone, it will devastate the chances of a progressive nominee. We need Warren urgently to endorse and campaign for Sanders (and should welcome her supporters with open arms). 

But Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement alone won’t change things enough. We also need to take the gloves off when it comes to Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders himself has always been reluctant to criticize Biden too harshly, restricting himself to a few mild remarks about Joe’s “billionaire donors,” his Iraq War vote, and his record on Social Security. It’s time to escalate and make sure voters understand the full truth: Biden has consistently been on the wrong side of history, and for decades Bernie has been fighting for justice while Biden has been fighting to protect his Delaware banker friends and his segregationist chums. Joe Biden has spent decades lying and pretending to have been a civil rights activist who did sit-ins, when he actually fought against and undermined the goals of the civil rights movement. He’s a feeble and uninspiring general election candidate, and Trump would eat him alive. Left journalists need to be exposing Biden’s history. Left broadcasters need to be talking about it. Left activists need to be going around making sure everyone understands who this man is and what he has done with his career. 

Next, Bernie needs a very clear strategy to shore up support with groups he has not done well with, in particular older African Americans and the elderly more broadly. Bernie has done fantastically with certain populations such as Latinos—hence his strong showings in Texas, Nevada, California. But he still hasn’t figured out how to get older people, white and Black alike, on board.

This should be fixable: Bernie’s politics offer a lot to older people. Being old in America is isolating and difficult, and in part it’s only made bearable by the social programs (Medicare and Social Security) that Bernie has spent his life fighting to protect and expand. Joe Biden has echoed Republican talking points about the need to “reform,” i.e., slash, spending on seniors, while Bernie even took on the Obama administration over it. (At that time, Joe Biden led the charge to reduce Social Security benefits, while Sanders put together a coalition to successfully pressure the administration to stop. Sanders went to war with Biden over benefit cuts and won.) 

I don’t quite understand why Bernie’s campaign hasn’t done more explicit messaging around elderly voters. He needs to debut an Elder Agenda, one that shows what he will do to protect people in old age and make sure that every generation can be assured of comfort and safety after retirement. He needs to talk incessantly about how he expended political capital to fight Joe Biden over cuts to retirement benefits. And he should film ads with older Bernie supporters talking about what Medicare and Social Security have meant for them, how afraid they get when Democrats and Republicans both start talking about how “spending” is out of control when they rely on that spending to live, and why they trust Bernie to keep these programs in place. How about an ad with three generations of a family sitting together, with each in turn talking about what Bernie’s candidacy means for them? And it doesn’t need to be purely about self-interest: Bernie should be seen talking with other grandparents about the kind of world they want for their grandkids, and how much they are scared about the threat of climate change. Appeal to people’s love for their families and their desire to make sure those families can continue for many prosperous generations. 

If Bernie’s going to win Florida, he also needs a Jewish strategy. Bernie’s Jewish outreach has often focused on younger Jews, but he needs a way to connect with older Jewish voters. Theoretically this shouldn’t be hard, but Bernie’s firm defenses of Palestinian rights have created controversy, and he needs to get some powerful Jewish figures speaking on his behalf to their communities. I can’t comment too much on how this might be done, not being Jewish myself, just as I can’t comment too much on how to make inroads with older Black voters. But the campaign needs to act and act fast.

Let’s admit it: In general, Bernie’s advertising has not been nearly as good this cycle as it was in 2016, nor his messaging nearly as tight. In 2016 we saw incredible ads like the famous “America” one with Simon & Garfunkel’s music, or the Erica Garner ad that could move people to tears. There have been some great ads this year too, but the team from 2016 is no longer with him and it shows. Likewise, in part because Bernie was trying to compete with Elizabeth Warren’s slew of “plans,” he has debuted a giant stack of ambitious policies. This is good because it’s comprehensive, but it makes his message muddy. The campaign needs to stick to a few clear goals and points that are going to be persuasive to voters in the upcoming states, a very focused anti-Biden message that also makes clear why the Bernie vision is so much better. 

One thing Biden’s victory revealed is that media can matter more than campaigning. Biden didn’t have much of a campaign infrastructure. Bernie had more money, more organizers, more field offices. It didn’t matter. Biden had the Narrative, and the Narrative is crucial. So Bernie’s people need to sit down and figure out how they’re going to win back that Narrative. They can’t just attack and dismiss the press as biased, which they are. They have to ask the questions: Even given their bias, how can we get them to cover us in the ways we want them to. Personally, for instance, I thought Bernie’s remarks about Fidel Castro should have been totally uncontroversial: Teaching kids to read was good, imprisoning dissidents was bad. But he should know the press doesn’t give things a fair reading, and that it was always going to spun as “Bernie Praises Castro,” a headline nobody needs with a critical Florida primary coming up. Pick your battles. Understand how things will be misrepresented. Don’t just get angry about unfair coverage: manipulate the system as best you can. We need to think in ruthless strategic terms about how to get Bernie to be covered the way we want him to be covered. 

Bernie needs to be better prepared for the next debate, too. He never does badly in these things, but he never does that well either. He delivers the same performance every time, sticking to talking points rather than getting in quick retorts and zingers. He needs to do lots of practices with a stand-in for Biden, figuring out how he can absolutely nail Biden in ways that will hurt Biden’s campaign. Look at Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg: Warren’s commanding performance temporarily revived her campaign and halted Bloomberg’s in its tracks. Debates don’t matter that much, but they do matter, and anything that makes even a small difference needs to be done. When Bernie and Joe Biden next face off, it will not be enough for Bernie to repeat his stump speech about how in the richest country in the world it’s indefensible for so many children to be homeless. (Which it is.) He will need to do unto Joe as Liz did unto Mike, and leave Biden blithering and struggling. This shouldn’t be difficult: Biden isn’t that sharp. But it will take prep work, and Bernie needs to know what Biden’s going to say in response and how Bernie can get off a good retort. He needs to imagine the headlines he wants the next day’s newspapers to contain and then work backward to figure out what it will take to get them.

*    *    *    *

But look, we can think all day about how the campaign can act. I am sure they know what they need to do, as much of it is obvious. The real thing Bernie needs in order to win, though, is external support. Labor unions, activists, lawmakers, anyone with a public platform: We need to be pressuring them to endorse Bernie. Why hasn’t Sara Nelson, head of the Flight Attendants’ Union, endorsed Bernie? (Personally I have always thought she’d be a good VP.) Now that Elizabeth Warren is clearly not going to win, will organizations like the Working Families Party and EMILY’s List and people like AFT president Randi Weingarten and Medicare For All advocate Ady Barkan switch and endorse Sanders? Where is the Sierra Club, SEIU (Bernie, after all, was one of the first national figures to push Fight for $15), the UAW, Planned Parenthood? Many progressive organizations have been sitting out the race because Warren was in it. Now that Warren is no longer a contender, they need to immediately get off the sidelines and put all of their weight behind Bernie. They should remember: Biden will not only do nothing for them, but will lose in November, and the future of these organizations depends on having a strong progressive candidacy. If you even want to have a labor movement in the future, you need a Sanders presidency, so any union that wants what’s good for its members should be sending its members all over Michigan to get out the vote. It’s not just Warren who needs to throw her weight behind Bernie if he is to win. It is progressive leaders and organizations. Every single one of these people. It is people like Jesse Jackson, who make supportive comments but should produce full endorsements. Every progressive lawmaker needs to line up behind Bernie. If Ed Markey wants a Green New Deal, Bernie’s the only one who will deliver it. If Raul Grijalva wants serious immigration reform, he needs Bernie to win. You need to lobby public figures and organizations to endorse Bernie. Environmental groups, reproductive rights groups, civil rights organizations. If they haven’t endorsed him, you need to tell them the stakes and challenge them to live their values. Volunteers will knock on thousands of doors, and send texts all day and night. But we also need activist groups and civic organizations and leaders. It’s now or never. 

The stakes of this election could not be higher, Bernie needs an immediate shift in the narrative, and a wave of endorsements from progressive figures and groups—who have been waiting to see how the Sanders-Warren contest shaped up—could be just what he needs to get the wind back in his sails. And without it: Biden—who let us remember is being praised when he manages to complete sentences—stumbles toward victory in the primary, loses badly in November, and the horror show of Trump’s presidency only escalates. There is now no option but Bernie, and those who care about progressive causes but sit out this next week will regret it as they watch Biden forget what race he’s running in during a debate with Donald Trump. 

The single most dangerous thing we can do right now is to conclude the race is over. It isn’t, but in order to win it, Bernie supporters need to think with hard-headed strategic thinking the same way the centrists have been doing. We have an objective, what steps will it take to outwit our opponent and get to the objective? That’s the question. 

If Biden becomes the nominee, it will be disastrous. We know that. So there is no choice: We’ve got to turn the narrative around, expose Biden’s weaknesses, and get back into the lead. The stakes are too high to do anything else.  

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