WASHINGTON, DC—“Joe, what are you going to do?”
Bernie Sanders stood at the podium in Burlington, Vermont, the day after a disappointing loss in Democrat primariesthat seemed to doom his candidacy for president of the United States. Most people watching were waiting for his next words. Would Sanders drop out of the race? Would he insist he could win and burn the party down trying? What would Bernie do?
He answered with a question, asked repeatedly. “Joe, what are you going to do?”
It was a question he said he intended to put to his opponent, Joe Biden, at the debate scheduled for Sunday in Arizona. Sanders was not dropping out. But perhaps, he was offering an opportunity for Biden to drop in and begin to make peace with the movement Sanders has built.
“We are winning the generational debate,” Sanders said of the exit polls that show him winning large majorities of voters under 30. “Today I say to the Democratic establishment that in order to win in the future, you must represent the voters of the future.”
“While our campaign has won the ideological debate, we are losing the debate about electability.” He acknowledged that Democrats, millions of them, across the country, had said that while they agreed with Sanders’ platform, they were voting for Biden because they thought he could beat Trump.
Much has been made, on cable TV panels, in op-ed pages and in online debates, about whether Sanders and his supporters would gracefully kiss Biden’s ring or whether they would work as hard as they could to tear him down and throw the election to Trump in the name of revolution-or-bust ideological purity. The latter is not hard to see, given the rhetoric of some of Sanders’ vocal and fanatical social media supporters. Some I have spoke with told me they would not vote for Biden, but would sit out the election if he was the nominee.
Tuesday night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youthful congresswoman and standard-bearer for the future of the progressive wing of the party, one of Sanders’ most prominent campaigners, conceded to her Instagram followers that it was a tough night. But she warned against cynicism, preached openness, and told them the future of the “movement” was about more than an election. She said they needed to bring more people in, and use their power as a voting block to bring the Democratic party to them.
To some extent, Sanders has started doing that — the centre of Democratic party politics today is far to the left of where it was in 2016, or 2012, or any time, really, in the past generation. Sanders’ ideas — as he noted in his speech — are no longer on the fringe, they are popular. They were the stuff most of this presidential primary campaign was fought over, and the main points of debate were not what to do, but how much and how quickly.
And there’s an argument — you could see it in Ocasio-Cortez’s comments — that the way to achieve those goals, if people won’t vote for Sanders right now, is by bring Biden and the party to them. Not fighting the party, so much, as pressing it: making sure Medicare for All, or student loan burdens, or the minimum wage remain front-and-centre ballot-box issues. Many who have followed Biden’s career note he always places himself somewhere close to the very mainstream of whatever current Democratic party thought is. Perhaps he can be led by those he aspires to lead. And perhaps the progressive wing of the party will live on and grow stronger for another day, as those young voters Sanders spoke of grow into the new establishment.
Biden, in his own remarks Tuesday night after winning in Michigan, was conciliatory rather than triumphant, thanking Sanders and his supporters for their “energy and passion” and suggesting they would fight together to beat Trump. “We’ll defeat him together. We’ll bring this nation together.”
The question many were asking Wednesday morning of Sanders and his supporters was, are you going to make peace with Biden?
Sanders response, in the form of his own question, was to say he’d be sticking around to ask if Biden would make peace with them. “What are you going to do, Joe?”
He didn’t concede the race, but he also didn’t attack Biden’s record (on the Iraq War, on Social Security, on trade) as he had been doing all week. He talked about the issues on which he has built his campaign — health care, climate change, student debt and income inequality, the influence of money on politics — and the movement that has propelled it. And he said he intended to carry on asking Biden — and through him, the Democratic party — if those were issues they would champion.
And he framed that, in both the opening and the closing of his remarks, with the larger immediate goal of defeating Donald Trump, who he said was “a racist, a sexist, a homophobe” and a danger to the country. Sanders would do what he needed to do to defeat Trump.
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But he would also carry on the fight for his ideas of justice. Whether he would be fighting against Biden, or alongside him, he seemed to suggest was a question someone else might help answer.
“Joe, what are you going to do?”