Five days after suspending his campaign, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders formally endorsed Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee. In a sign of these bizarre times, the announcement happened on a joint livestream, with Sanders speaking from Vermont and Biden hosting in Delaware. There was no audience, no elusive stump speech, and no “moment of unity” photo op, just two old men sitting in their respective dens. “Today, I am asking all Americans -- I'm asking every Democrat; I’m asking every independent; I’m asking a lot of Republicans -- to come together in this campaign to support your candidacy, which I endorse, to make certain that we defeat somebody who I believe is the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said to Biden.
For Sanders, endorsing Biden gives him a seat at the table for defining what policy platform will accompany Biden in November. The primary concession from Team Biden appears to be a series of policy working groups, chaired by Sanders and Biden advisors. It remains to be seen whether or not these unity projects will bear any tangible benefit. Biden has spent most of the campaign talking sheepishly about his actual plans for governing, instead relying on poorly-delivered yet soaring rhetoric about “healing the soul of the nation.” There does seem to be an opportunity for the Sanders left to sculpt Biden closer to their image.
Yet perhaps the more illuminating moment came towards the end of the livestream, when Sanders expanded on his decision to endorse so early. Speaking to both the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the threat of a second Trump term, Sanders bluntly said “we have no choice. We have to come together.”
The lack of options is key to understanding the building Democratic consensus on electing Biden; unification for the sake of propping up a weak candidate against a dangerous incumbent in the midst of a century-defying crisis. It’s why Cornell West is pledging to support Biden as part of a broader “anti-fascist coalition against Trump,” and why Sanders is endorsing so early after waiting months before supporting Clinton in 2016. Zoom out some more and look at the polls, which show Biden comfortably in the lead yet running weak in terms of enthusiasm among supporters. He’s not Obama; he’s also not Trump. Is that enough?
Yesterday, the New York Times, Washington Post, and NBC News all published investigations into Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden. Reade claims that Biden pushed her up against a wall and used his finger to penetrate her against her wishes when she worked in his Senate office in the 1990s. Reade says she told friends, family, and other staff about the incident when it happened. Reade’s brother and friends corroborated his story to the press; her former co-workers—all of whom remain in Biden’s orbit—denied ever hearing about the incident.
Not a single elected Democrat responded to the investigations publicly. Faced with a difficult question of molarity, Democrats are simply punting and hoping that voters don’t remember.
`The stakes of this election are almost unimaginably high. The next generation of American life will be defined by the response to the economic cataclysm we currently face. An absurd, bizarre primary process produced a historically-weak Democratic nominee that lacks policy coherence, is clearly beyond his prime, and is saddled with liabilities both in character and political substance. And yet he is now, somehow, the only person stopping a second-term of Trump in the midst of a Great Depression.
And so, the most ambitious Democratic electoral project in a generation begins: dragging Joe Biden across the finish line. It will be a daunting, unprecedented test of political messaging, requiring more public persuasion than the Clintoneqsue New Democrat dreams of the 1990s and more unity than the post-Watergate Congressional rebellion in the 1974 midterms.
How can you unify a party around a candidate who so few seem genuinely enthusiastic about? How do you run a Presidential campaign in the midst of a global pandemic and economic depression while your candidate barely talks about policy? How do you claim to be the party of women’s equality while supporting a candidate with a credible allegation of assault? And how can you do any of that while running against a bombastic, shameless incumbent President with a rabid following?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But Democrats as ideologically divergent as Sanders and Steny Hoyer are going to spend the next few month trying to make it work.
Midway through today’s joint appearance, Biden devolved into behavior we’ve seen all too often in the past year. Given a softball question by Sanders on how relieve crushing student debt (a key issue among the Sanders constituency that Biden needs), Biden stumbled into a long, meandering and often incoherent tirade before landing on a policy proposal roughly on par with what Obama tried to accomplish six years ago. Here’s the whole quote:
In 2021 our whole country will have to take a hard look at the country and fix what is broken...here’s my pledge: We’ll I will make an educator..an education that is in fact...my wife Jill who is a professor at a community college says any country that out competes us joe...that out educates us, Joe, is gonna out compete us. And so, we’ll make education and community college free for all.
Throughout this, Sanders tried really hard to stay engaged. He nodded, pretending to follow along, and as Biden dug deeper and deeper, he started to frown. But just for a second.