I will always feel indebted to Bernie Sanders for how he inspired me to become involved with politics. But damn if I’m not disappointed with the way the Democratic Party presidential primaries turned out—and super disappointed now that all progressives have to show for their efforts in 2020 at the highest level is the Joe Biden-Bernie Sanders task force.
At this writing, Biden has well surpassed the requisite tally to clinch the nomination, garnering 2,575 pledged delegates, 584 more than the minimum needed. Bernie stands at 1,047 after dropping out in April. All other candidates who won delegates amassed but 142 delegates. What’s the significance, beyond Joe running up the score?
By now, nothing. Had Bernie reached 1,200 delegates, there might’ve been a discussion to be had, albeit a relatively short one given that the nomination has long since been locked up. At this juncture, however, that is essentially impossible, if not mathematically certain to be so. Moreover, it comes on the heels of a drive by the Sanders campaign and supporting organizations that by most accounts would be described as tepid—at best.
In an article for The Intercept from April, Rachel M. Cohen detailed how while Bernie was staying on the ballot in an effort to earn more delegates, the investment to get him to 1,200 pledged delegates—the necessary number by which he and his campaign would be able to influence the Democratic National Convention/party platform—hasn’t been much of an investment.
As a function of exiting the presidential race, the Sanders campaign stopped advertising and the man himself got behind his onetime rival, endorsing Biden and vowing to campaign for him against the wishes of Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution. And while OR still prioritized getting out the vote for Bernie, other Bernie-sympathetic organizations shifted their focus to down-ballot races (which, to be fair, need(ed) their share of attention) or simply lack the bandwidth to make a dent in Biden grabbing the lion’s share of the delegate haul.
So, yes, we can forget about that drive, which leaves us now with the aforementioned join task force. In fairness, this “show of unity” between the two campaigns is not altogether discouraging when considering some of the dramatis personae, esp. on the Sanders side. Among the high-profile names representing Bernie’s faction are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Climate Change), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Health Care), and former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed (Health Care).
As to what they’ve come up with a month and change before the convention, though? From a progressive perspective, it’s not all that and a bag of chips (note: please excuse my use of ultra-modern sayings).
To be clear, and as with the roster for the task force itself, the recommendations for the party platform are not completely devoid of encouragement, as reports Ella Nilsen for Vox, citing a 100+-page report on the Biden campaign official website.
Elements of the set of recommended directives include the creation of a postal banking system to expand banking access for low-income families; a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions national goal for all new buildings in 2030; universal pre-K for three- and four-year olds; a ban on for-profit charter schools; decriminalization of marijuana at the state level and legalization at the federal; ending the use of private prisons and detention centers; and terminating the Trump administration travel ban.
What these recommendations don’t do, meanwhile, is advocate for Medicare for All (instead, the bid is for a “public option” administered by Medicare), nor do they even mention the Green New Deal. There is no appeal for a cancellation of all student debt. These progressive priorities are largely side-stepped for the sake of this nebulous concept of party “unity.”
On the subject of Medicare, too, the task force calls for a lowering of the enrollment age from 65 to 60. For younger voters in particular, that’s small potatoes, especially when Hillary Clinton, on several counts a better candidate than Biden, was offering enrollment at the age of 55. On such a critical issue as healthcare in a time of political upheaval and amid a global health crisis, that we’re moving backwards, not forwards is frustrating—and that may be putting it mildly.
Similarly, there’s no mandate to defund the police. Sure, this is a “charged” issue, with some fearful voters equating defunding police forces with abolishing them outright and not even Bernie supporting the defunding movement; if anything he wants to give police departments more money, albeit with strings attached (still not a great take, by the by). That said, for young adults from communities of color that have been disproportionately and negatively impacted by increasingly militaristic policing, to not take a firmer stand on defunding is less likely to draw their attention and generate excitement for the Biden campaign.
In all, Biden and Co. appear to be banking on the suburban “swing mom” vote, all but ignoring the youth vote, the Latinx vote, Black Lives Matter’s larger aims, and every intersection betwixt and between. Generally speaking, and with a nod to the “insurgent” wing of the Democratic Party desperately hungry for substantive change, it’s a rather disheartening collection of platform priorities, notably because it is yet one more instance of establishment Democrats playing it safe with a critical election on the line.
Did Bernie Sanders betray progressives by dropping out so early with few to no concessions from Joe Biden and his camp re the party platform? It depends on who you ask, but as far as I’m concerned, no, Bernie hasn’t betrayed progressives. As a member of the Senate, Sanders has continued and will continue to champion progressive causes like M4A and the GND. Concerning the former, lest we forget and as Bernie growled in a memorable debate exchange, he wrote the damn bill. Thus, while he may have laid it down to Biden, he didn’t abandon his principles like other so-called progressives in the race (cough, Elizabeth Warren, cough).
Nevertheless, lay it down Bernie did, and this notion is still something I wrestle with as one of his supporters. I get that Bernie pledged he would support the eventual winner of the Democratic Party nomination as he did in 2016. He may be a rabble-rouser, but he’s not a complete asshole and he understands the threat that a second(!) term of President Donald Trump presents.
This aside, when it came to the lone heads-up debate with Joe Biden, where was the killer instinct his supporters were looking for? I know, I know, Bernie—Joe is your “friend.” He’s not my friend, though, not with his litany of bad policy positions and votes. With that, I don’t know if he rescued you from a burning building or what, but the way you threw in the towel, it felt less like a strategic maneuver and more like something done out of obligation or duress. Watching Bernie’s endorsement of Biden, I felt like shouting at the screen for him to tug on his right ear if he were being held hostage. Three months removed from that moment, that this theory remains among my top explanations for what happened is vaguely alarming.
We may never know what was discussed behind closed doors between Biden and Sanders, or for that matter, Sanders and Barack Obama. Maybe Bernie is just too nice or too much of an optimist. (By proxy, I might be a cold-hearted cynic and a jerk.) In terms of leverage, however, any pull Bernie and his backers had died when his bid for at least a quarter of the delegate share did. If nothing else, it’s aggravating to have Biden backers and dyed-in-the-wool Democrats popping off and telling progressives to “kiss the ring” or “bend the knee.” This is supposed to be American democracy, not a g-d Game of Thrones situation.
Even the act of withholding one’s vote or not committing to Biden until the general election nears has been undermined in part by—you guessed it—Bernie Sanders, taking a more scolding tone this election cycle and suggesting it would be “irresponsible” for his adherents to sit this election out. As is always the case with vote shaming, however, the directionality is warped. In all but a handful of “swing” states, “rogue” Bernie supporters are unlikely to make a significant impact on the outcome. Either way, it’s ultimately Joe Biden’s job to make the case for Joe Biden, not Bernie or Briahna Joy Gray or David Sirota or anyone else affiliated with the Sanders campaign. As I feel it should be stressed, Bernie backers are not a cult. They have real concerns about real issues and should be talked to, not talked at accordingly.
As Bernie himself recently put forward, Joe Biden has a chance to be “the most progressive president since FDR” if he commits to the recommendations outlined by the joint task force. Meanwhile, these are purely recommendations and from what we know of Biden and his profile as a lawmaker, a more centrist and less inspiring outcome is more probable. I hope the Biden campaign ultimately surprises progressives en route to a decisive victory over Donald Trump, I really do. At the same time, I’m not exactly holding my breath either.