NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Bernie Sanders signs off: “While the campaign ends, the struggle for justice continues on”

Though many states have not not yet held nom­i­nat­ing events, the bat­tle for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s 2020 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion effec­tive­ly came to an end today with Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders’ announce­ment that he is end­ing his cam­paign, leav­ing for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden as the pre­sump­tive nominee.

Sanders announced his deci­sion in a con­fer­ence call with his cam­paign staff on Wednes­day morn­ing, and then explained his deci­sion to his sup­port­ers via a live address. (You can watch the whole thing right here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate.)

It is an igno­min­ious end to one of the most dra­mat­ic and sus­pense-filled pres­i­den­tial can­di­da­cies of recent his­to­ry. Rock­et­ing to nation­al promi­nence dur­ing his bid to wrest the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion from Hillary Clin­ton – and rein­vig­o­rat­ing the left wing of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics in the process – he came sur­pris­ing­ly close to beat­ing the for­mer Sec­re­tary of State and First Lady.

After los­ing the pri­ma­ry, he cam­paigned for his for­mer rival against Don­ald Trump, encour­ag­ing his base of young pro­gres­sives to sup­port Clin­ton, a can­di­date about whom many of them had seri­ous reservations.

After Trump’s elec­tion, Sanders (as arguably the most pro­gres­sive mem­ber of the Sen­ate) became a de fac­to leader in the oppo­si­tion to Trump: lay­ing into the Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tion on the floor of the Sen­ate, hold­ing mass ral­lies, and releas­ing three books on his polit­i­cal vision for the future.

When he declared his renewed run for the pres­i­den­cy in Feb­ru­ary 2019, Sanders was in a strong posi­tion. He was one of the best-known and most pop­u­lar polit­i­cal fig­ures in the coun­try, and he was able to quick­ly re-mobi­l­ize his coali­tion of sup­port­ers from his first pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2016.

How­ev­er, the 2020 race proved to be very unlike 2016. In a field of over two dozen can­di­dates, Sanders had to stand out both from well-known Demo­c­ra­t­ic fig­ures like Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Joe Biden, and from charis­mat­ic, pop­u­lar new fig­ures like May­or Pete Buttigieg and Sen­a­tor Kamala Har­ris. Sanders held onto a sol­id base of ded­i­cat­ed fol­low­ers, but much of the sup­port he might have com­mand­ed in a less crowd­ed pri­ma­ry field went to oth­er candidates.

Sanders remained at the front of the pack through­out the pri­ma­ry sea­son thanks to the loy­al­ty of his base, but he some­times strug­gled to gain atten­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in some of the ear­ly debates, which fea­tured ten can­di­dates at a time.

At the start of Octo­ber 2019, the Sanders cam­paign faced a major set­back when the Sen­a­tor suf­fered a heart attack, putting him out of action for weeks and prompt­ing seri­ous dis­cus­sions over whether con­tin­u­ing to the cam­paign would be viable. How­ev­er, by the end of the month, Sanders was back on his feet.

His strong per­for­mance in the Ohio debate, along with a group of high-pro­­file endorse­ments from promi­nent pro­gres­sives like U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, fueled a come­back narrative.

By the start of 2020, Sanders was the strongest remain­ing can­di­date in the race; both Joe Biden and Eliz­a­beth War­ren seemed to have peaked after ear­ly surges, while Sanders’ coali­tion of sup­port remained solid.

The ear­­ly-vot­ing states bore this out. Sanders won the pop­u­lar vote in the Iowa Cau­cus (although May­or Pete Buttigieg edged him out in the state’s arcane del­e­gate sys­tem), then nar­row­ly won New Hampshire’s primary.

In Neva­da, his campaign’s efforts to gal­va­nize Lati­no vot­ers pro­duced an over­whelm­ing vic­to­ry, with Sanders lap­ping the field.

At that point, his cam­paign appeared all but unstoppable.

How­ev­er, South Carolina’s pri­ma­ry at the end of Feb­ru­ary changed every­thing. Joe Biden – pow­ered by an incred­i­ble show of affec­tion from the black com­mu­ni­ty – was able to win the state by a com­fort­able margin.

This vic­to­ry (which fol­lowed an embar­rass­ing slew of loss­es) proved deci­sive. It demon­strat­ed that Biden that could win and that he was viable.

An aston­ish­ing series of events fol­lowed: all of the remain­ing neolib­er­al can­di­dates dropped out in quick suc­ces­sion and endorsed Biden, along with a flood of influ­en­tial Demo­c­ra­t­ic fig­ures. Their sup­port – along with the pos­i­tive media it gen­er­at­ed – gave Biden momen­tum going into Super Tues­day.

On March 3rd, Biden won nine states (but was denied the great­est prize of all, Cal­i­for­nia), and put him­self square­ly back in the front of the race.

The stage appeared set for a lengthy war of attri­tion between Sanders and Biden, with Sanders rely­ing on his field oper­a­tion and an army of young activists, while Biden would rely on an increas­ing­ly con­sol­i­dat­ed base of sup­port from mul­ti­ple wings of the par­ty, as evi­denced by his many endorsements.

How­ev­er, a few days after Super Tues­day, both Biden and Sanders were swept up in a phe­nom­e­non of even grander pro­por­tions than the race for the White House. COVID-19 hit the USA in ear­ly March, throw­ing Amer­i­can pol­i­tics into chaos.

The last tele­vised debate between the two men stark­ly demon­strat­ed the impact of the pan­dem­ic on Demo­c­ra­t­ic politics.

Instead of a crowd­ed audi­to­ri­um in Ari­zona, the can­di­dates faced each oth­er in a small CNN stu­dio in Wash­ing­ton D.C. to avoid risk of infec­tion. In that debate, Sanders threw every­thing he had against Biden, but – through an unusu­al­ly strong per­for­mance and some fibs – Biden emerged pret­ty much unscathed.

The remain­der of the con­test was anti­cli­mac­tic. Sanders believes strong­ly in retail pol­i­tics. He loves to speak to large crowds; ral­lies are his pre­ferred way of gal­va­niz­ing peo­ple to take action. The phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing restric­tions imposed to counter the pan­dem­ic put an end to the cam­paign’s abil­i­ty to hold rallies.

Although Don­ald Trump car­ried on with his ral­lies well after it was clear that it was unsafe to do so, Sanders respon­si­bly switched to live-stream­ing speech­es to his fol­low­ers and rais­ing mon­ey on behalf of char­i­ties bat­tling the pandemic.

Mean­while, Biden strug­gled to stay vis­i­ble, but rode a sense of inevitabil­i­ty to easy vic­to­ries in lat­er states. When Biden crushed Sanders in Illi­nois, Flori­da, and Ari­zona on March 17th, the Sen­a­tor report­ed­ly began con­sult­ing his top advi­sors about the future of the cam­paign, which led to him drop­ping out on Wednesday.

Bernie Sanders will not be the next pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, but he will undoubt­ed­ly go down in Amer­i­can his­to­ry as an impor­tant polit­i­cal figure.

When he first began his pri­ma­ry chal­lenge to Hillary Clin­ton in 2015, he was a vir­tu­al unknown, seen as a rad­i­cal out­sider on the fringes of Amer­i­can politics.

In the sub­se­quent half-decade, his two pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns and relent­less activism have changed the very land­scape of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life.

As a self-pro­fessed demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist, Sanders unapolo­get­i­cal­ly chal­lenged the neolib­er­al con­sen­sus that has dom­i­nat­ed polit­i­cal dis­course in the Unit­ed States for four decades. The social­ist move­ment is the Unit­ed States has found new life, with groups such as the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) increas­ing their mem­ber­ship ten­fold and polls show­ing that the Cold War-era stig­ma around the term “social­ism” is being reject­ed by huge num­bers of Amer­i­cans.

Sanders also man­aged to over­haul the pol­i­cy pri­or­i­ties of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Before his cam­paigns, Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians com­pet­ed to out­do each oth­er over who could be more hawk­ish on for­eign pol­i­cy and more stingy with the budget.

The 2020 pri­ma­ry saw can­di­dates try­ing to out­do each oth­er with big ideas: there were mul­ti­ple com­pet­ing ver­sions of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, mas­sive immi­gra­tion reforms, and rad­i­cal racial jus­tice programs.

Sanders’ cam­paign of 2016 proved that his poli­cies were pop­u­lar and pos­si­ble, and the Trump pres­i­den­cy proved that they were necessary.

And there’s no going back.

Mean­while, Joe Biden has made it through one of the most gru­el­ing pri­maries in polit­i­cal his­to­ry, but he faces an even greater chal­lenge in unit­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to take on Don­ald Trump. The qual­i­ty of his cam­paign to date has been less than impres­sive, and many pro­gres­sive vot­ers have lit­tle love for him.

Beat­ing an incum­bent pres­i­dent is a chal­lenge even at the best of times, and the COVID-19 cri­sis has hand­ed Don­ald Trump the oppor­tu­ni­ty to exploit the “ral­ly round the flag” effect by pre­tend­ing to be a nation­al leader (and play­ing down his own incom­pe­tence and denial). There is fresh evi­dence, how­ev­er, that Trump’s dai­ly per­for­mances in the White House brief­ing room are not res­onat­ing.

Biden will have his work cut out beat­ing Trump, and could ben­e­fit from the elec­toral tal­ents, loy­al sup­port­ers, and cam­paign­ing expe­ri­ence of Sanders.

Biden is well aware that with­out Sanders and his sup­port­ers, he will strug­gle might­i­ly to win against Trump. To earn the sup­port of Sanders vot­ers, Biden will have to meet them where they are, espe­cial­ly on pol­i­cy. He will have to make good on his promis­es to reach out to his for­mer rival in a mean­ing­ful way that can uni­fy the par­ty and ensure Don­ald Trump’s defeat this November.

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