305 views | Dr. Binoy Kampmark | April 10, 2020
Champagne corks will be popping in the Trump Empire, for good reason. Whatever happens, come November, the exit of Senator Bernie Sanders from the US presidential race will be a relief. The fractured republic can be reassured that the Democrats have not moved on, stuck, as it were, in the glades of vengeful melancholia and supposedly safe bets. Divisions will not be healed; suspicions will continue to foster. A bitter society, ravished by pandemic, will cast an eye to incumbency.
On Wednesday, Sanders delivered the news to his supporters. “If I believed we had a feasible path to the nomination, I would certainly continue.” The decision to end his campaign had been “very difficult and painful” but it had “transformed American consciousness as to what kind of nation we can become and have taken this country a major step in the never-ending struggle for economic justice, social justice, racial justice and environmental justice.” It was the appeal to ideas that mattered, and the continuation of the movement he had inspired.
With each Democratic candidate being culled from the initial smorgasbord, and the machinery of the Democratic National Committee doing its usual bit of mischief, the chances for Sanders netting the nomination were always slim. He started well in New Hampshire; roared to victory in Nevada. Then came defeat in South Carolina, where the black vote eluded him. Joe Biden’s victories on Super Tuesday in 10 of 14 states was crushing. A week after, and failing to convince Michigan Democrats, he had a sobering admission to make. While he consistently did well in claiming the votes of the young and making inroads among Latinos, he was “losing the debate over electability”. The restrictions placed on the campaign by COVID-19 sealed matters.
The honours for the Democratic presidential nomination, however that will be finalised, fall to Joe Biden, who has distinguished himself in crisis by largely absenting himself. The enfeebled Biden is already weighed down by a resume thickened by allegations of wandering hands (dismissed by Biden supporters as “politically motivated” or “pro-Putin”), patchy choices on matters touching on race and foreign policy, and an evident slide into cognitive decline. The campaign strategy, one seriously chewed over since mid-last year, is simple: manufactured silence and minimised presence. Doing so minimises room for imbecilic error and any needless expenditure of energy. So far, and with stunning effect, it has worked, aided by that trusty steed, circumstance.
As the likely opponent to Donald Trump, a certain degree of presidential air, faux or otherwise, might have been conveyed. But that would have made him more vulnerable than he already is. Exposure for Biden could be electoral death. Even with his barely visible electoral footprint, he did not disappoint. He held a delayed press conference on March 12, when COVID-19 had started to bite as a crisis. A virtual town hall was staged the next day, one plagued by technical difficulties and a rather loose reading of history. Towards the end of the muddle, a caller asked Biden where he stood on the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and whether he would support legislation prohibiting hunting sports. Affirmative to both, responded Biden.
But that was not all. Brandishing pinched green credentials, he claimed sponsorship for the Endangered Species Act, one of his first acts as US Senator. Unfortunately for him, the Congressional record shows that Senator Harrison Williams (D-NJ) was the sponsor, with the Delaware co-sponsor being Republican Senator William Roth. It was yet another Hillary Clinton “I misspoke” moment, though, in all fairness, Biden has outdone her in those stakes.
As the health crisis began to escalate – lockdowns, death tolls, social distancing directives all featuring – Biden’s campaign, through such advisors as Symone D. Sanders, encouraged voters to vote in person, pouring water on any health concerns. Such instances of the congregation provided rich wells of infection. The former Vice-President then disappeared, though always claiming a degree of desperation to be in “daily or at least, you know, significant contact with the American people and communicate what I should be doing”. Which has been, for campaign directors, mercifully little.
Invitations have been made to Sanders supporters from across the political spectrum. Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins wasted little time. “I invite his supporters to join my campaign to continue to fight for socialist solutions through the Nov election & beyond.” This will bring the usual uproar from jaded Democrats that a vote for the Greens or any third-party candidate is a vote for Trump.
Trump did not waste much time either in the courtship ritual, thanking Senator Elizabeth Warren for her putative sabotage of Sanders on Super Tuesday. “This ended just like the Democrats and the DNC wanted” somewhat similar, he argued, to “the Crooked Hillary Fiasco. The Bernie people should come to the Republican Party”.
Biden, just as with Hillary Clinton in 2016, is doing his bit to woo the Sanders voters. As with Clinton, the effort seems much of an afterthought, a meek attempt to consolidate a fractured group. On Thursday, he put out a plan “to ease the economic burden on working people” by lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 and implement student debt forgiveness schemes for low-income and middle-class families. Such mild overtures actually convinced a few, such as Economic Policy Institute director of research Josh Bivens, that the Sanders effect was authentic enough.
Progressive groups, notionally aligned with the youth bloc that backed Sanders are also attempting to make their voices felt in the Biden universe. A letter to the presidential hopeful signed by an array of such organisations like the Alliance for Youth Action, Student Action and the Sunrise Movement, to name but a few, are filled with progressive hope. One was wishing Biden to promise “to appoint zero current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists, or people affiliated with the fossil fuel, health insurance or private prison corporations, to your transition team, advisor roles, or cabinet.” A quaintly naïve sentiment.
In another 2016-redux moment, the departure of Sanders leaves his followers talking about a movement beyond the man. Feel the Bern was more than just an emotional binge, cresting on a body of ideas packed with social justice and equality. “It’s common now to say the Sanders campaign failed,” observed Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now Radio. “I think that’s a mistake. I think it was an extraordinary success, completely shifting the arena of debate and discussion.” True, to a point. But as with 2016, that discussion is something that has passed the Establishment fogeys by. “In the end,” as Andrew Marantz penned in the New Yorker, “he did change the culture of America, but not quickly enough.”
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com