US 2020

Sanders, Biden, Trump: Three Old Men meet their Witching Hour

Sanders, Biden, Trump: Three Old Men meet their Witching Hour
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders (L) and Joe Biden (R) stand on stage during the tenth Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, USA, 25 February, 2020. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO (RIGHT) US President Donald J. Trump speaks during a press briefing on the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic with members of the Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 19 March 2020. EPA-EFE/Yuri Gripas / POOL

Three men, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are to be found up in the dark hours of early morning, contemplating the tough political tests they now face.

A few years back, a whole battalion of politicians (and a sprinkling of business figures) undoubtedly found themselves awake at 3am. Aside from the possibilities of a dose of indigestion or acid reflux, they were all pondering the possibility that they too could become president. Once that particular bug bites, it becomes very hard to get rid of it until the public makes its preference clearly known and the losers get to skulk away to write their memoirs explaining why they would have been the right choice and make money as Fox News, MSNBC or CNN “analysts”.

Each of them, alone in quiet, dark homes, would have been found wondering whether the inevitable steep costs — emotional, financial, physical, and personal — of trying to gain the nomination and then the presidency were really worth it, especially since only one person would ultimately be chosen. 

But collectively, behaving like a cohort of modern Odysseuses (Odysseuii?) shipboard on the return to Ithaca, they were hearing that tempting siren call. And in spite of their own better judgment, perhaps, they were, each of them, urging friends and family to remove those stout bindings that were keeping them tethered to the ship’s mast, to prevent their diving into the roiling sea to their untimely deaths.

By the end of it all in 2016, Donald Trump had actually heard the secret of the siren’s call and had survived the passage. He became the US president after the November 2016 election, when so many others had been unable to achieve their deepest desire.

Now, with another presidential election season upon us, the original baker’s dozen of would-be Democratic Party candidates has been whittled down to just one man — or perhaps just barely two of them, depending on your point of view and the fervour of your political persuasion. Accordingly, at this moment, three men, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Donald Trump must surely be finding themselves restless and awake at that bleak hour of 3am, contemplating their respective choices and challenges.

For Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, in his pacing back and forth, it must be a particularly bitter moment. With campaign rallies no longer possible because of Coronavirus shutdown, and with a string of stinging defeats in several days of state primaries, Sanders’ staff have now explained to reporters that the senator and his wife have headed back to their home in Burlington, Vermont to contemplate his future moves. 

In the meantime, his campaign had already cancelled its online, social media advertising. That is something that is usually the sign of a campaign winding down to its inevitable end.

For Sanders — a man who had spent his entire political career being a kind of curious mix of ideological stalwart, political outsider, and Old Testament-style prophet, all voiced in Brooklyn’s distinctive vocal tones — he had been the small city of Burlington, Vermont’s mayor, then Vermont’s solitary congressman, then one of its two senators. In all of this, he had never actually been a member of the Democratic Party, although he caucused with them in the Senate for such things as the party’s control of that body. Throughout all this time, he had relentlessly banged the drum for some deep, even fundamental changes in the country’s economic and political pathways.

And there have now been two runs for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, first in 2016 against Hillary Clinton and now, in 2020, against a dozen other candidates, until he and Joe Biden were the sole protagonists left on the field. But the cherished notion that he would lead a vast movement of the young, the disaffected, and the underclass to a transformative revolutionary-style moment has now, evidently, turned to ashes in his mouth. Again.

As Sanders paces back and forth, he wrestles with the question of whether he can make up his mind to draw down his campaign. Then there is the question of whether he can make a meaningful peace with Biden without seeming to divorce himself from his political principles; and whether he can voice the words that the most important task ahead is to unite Democrats, independents, and (hopefully) numerous Republicans — all repulsed by Donald Trump’s words and actions — and weld these populations into a successful coalition for the presidency, this time around.  To do otherwise, however, and stay aloof from the upcoming general election campaign may cause significant numbers of his strongest supporters to turn away from the political process and simply decline to vote. And in a close vote in November, that could easily contribute to the re-election of Donald Trump to a second term.

For Sanders, as he paces back and forth in the dark, he is surely contemplating that such a choice would mean his entire political career would end with the caption, “…whose disappointed followers had sat out the 2020 election, thereby giving Trump a narrow second-term victory”. Could he live with that? He remembers reading that British conservative politician Enoch Powell had famously once said, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” As he paces, Sanders is surely weighing whether or not people will think that of him, or, rather, does he want to bite his lip, and then throw his lot in with Biden, all while still representing the leftwing conscience of a Democratic movement?

Meanwhile, at his long-time home in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, or perhaps at a private space somewhere on that state’s beautiful Atlantic Ocean beaches, Joe Biden, with the political wind in his sails, but with the public face of his campaign now largely obscured by the overwhelming impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, is similarly pacing back and forth, late at night. His problems are different, though.

He knows that the remaining state primaries could formally put him over the top in terms of pledged delegates for the nomination, but, depending on the course of the disease and the country’s responses to it, those remaining primaries may not even be held, leaving it for some other mechanism in those states to pick their delegates, perhaps through a mail-in balloting system, or perhaps even through some kind of carefully controlled process of caucus meetings to ratify the choice of Biden as nominee. How can he, now that he is the putative nominee, work with other Democratic leaders to pull things together but still have it be a widely acceptable method for selecting the remaining delegates?

But then there is the question of his final rival, Bernie Sanders. Biden is well aware of the fact Sanders is an intensely proud man with a very strong sense of commitment to his political principles (putting aside that awkward business with gun control). Having made his intentions known for a broad church of a party in several victory speeches after some big primary wins, Biden is continuing to wrestle with how to bring Sanders into his big-tent, broad coalition, and how to ensure Sanders’ fervent supporters don’t simply walk away from the political process entirely. He knows that may actually be the key to beating Trump in November.

Undoubtedly, in Biden’s mind, as the floorboards creak softly, there are all sorts of options dangling out there. Does he want to ask Sanders to serve as his point-person for a serious, high-powered commission on fundamental reforms in the country’s medical sector (and jointly announcing this at a public event where Sanders endorses Biden)? Does he want to ask Sanders to help him select a mutually acceptable running mate (a woman, yes, but whom?), or even ask Sanders to serve as a campaign co-chairman and surrogate across the nation in the upcoming general election campaign? Each of these options has some significant pros and cons – but there are no simple, easy answers, even as the need to make decisions on these is close.

Meanwhile, of course, there is a third man who is also up at night, pacing, back and forth, across the carpeting of the private living quarters of the White House. He always knew he would be the nominee of his adopted political party, the Republicans, in 2016 and then the president. But he had expected he would be running as the man who brought unprecedented prosperity, record-shattering stock market levels and low unemployment, draw-downs on those unpleasant “small” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and so many other victories on trade and immigration. With all those victories, Americans would get ‘tired of winning’, just as he loved to say in his rallies. Those rallies all across the country had always given him an adrenalin rush with those roaring crowds who already knew all his punchlines but who cheered anyway. Pace, pace, pace. There was no point in turning on Fox News at this hour, it was just repeats of segments he had already watched, and the other networks were not nearly as positive as his favourite channel so there was no reason to watch them either.

But nobody had ever told him it would all be so difficult when the usual public posturing and statements had so little impact on what had — only a month earlier — been those marks of pride in his unparalleled abilities to show all those doubters. The markets were now tanking, and all his friends kept calling him to ask him to do something big, something really big to fix this before they lost even more money. 

Meanwhile, the whole nation was in an uproar over that damned virus and the fears of Americans that this was a “big one” that would cut the heart out of the country’s prosperity. He had appointed the vice-president as the central coordinator for all anti-Covid-19 actions and still the problem was not solved. Of course, he could do it himself, but it was important to keep Mike Pence busy and looking engaged, or else he’d have to think about replacing him for the new campaign. What about Niki Haley perhaps? Somebody with some real pizzaz in public – and who could go toe to toe with whoever Biden selected as his running mate.

And then there were all those nasty foreign policy issues. Why couldn’t they all just go away and let him get on with curing the pandemic? Even his friends like Vladimir Putin or Binyamin Netanyahu haven’t been helpful like they were supposed to be. Then there was Jared, his great son-in-law. The boy had tried so hard to fix the Middle East and everything, but things hadn’t worked out right. Maybe it will be necessary to do a real shakeup in his White House staff and the cabinet and get some really hot, good looking folks, the kind of people who looked like they came right out of Central Casting, people who could stand next to him in future campaign rallies and be able to show their stuff. And why couldn’t he get Congress to do the things he wanted — maybe they should all simply go home and isolate themselves in place? That would make it easier for him to get things done. Maybe he should call Mitch up in an hour or two and recommend it. But then there is that Pelosi woman.

Pace, pace, pace.

But it simply isn’t fair that he was now saddled with all of these messy things and disagreeable people when he knew how to build things, how to make deals, and how to do things right for our “America First” people. And what about all those quarrelsome scientists who can’t simply provide the right drugs, inoculations and cures like they should do if they were so smart? Maybe they were Democrats? This is the country with the best scientists and labs and hospitals and so it is not fair for his administration to get saddled with this. Should have been Obama’s problem, he keeps thinking as he paces the hallway, back and forth to his private study.

Three men, each of whom has choices, trials, and tests they must confront. If they make the wrong choice, things might well come unravelled for any of these men. Oh, and, just by the way, for the country and the world. DM


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