US ELECTIONS 2020
Joe Biden’s de facto democratic nomination arrives early – now he must defeat the incumbent in the middle of a pandemic
Covid-19 and the economic collapse from the shutdown are truly shaking up the entire US presidential race, from a news story that dominates all to a topic that becomes one of those ‘in other news’ stories.
After nearly half a decade of trying to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in order to lead a democratic socialist revolution in the US, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has bowed to the inevitable, ending his pursuit of the nomination and endorsing his rival, Joe Biden, for the nomination. With that decision by Sanders, former vice-president Joe Biden has now become the only remaining candidate, and thus the inevitable nominee of his party for the 2020 nomination, unless a whole flock of honking black swans suddenly come down from the sky to swim in the US’s political lake.
The actual nomination will only take place officially at the party’s national nominating convention, along with all the other usual things like a Democratic Party food fight over elements of the party’s platform. This gathering was originally scheduled to take place from 13-16 July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but it has now been postponed for a month, due to the unprecedented Covid-19 emergency. Of course, this later date assumes the coronavirus does not have some as-yet-unrevealed plans of its own for a second or even a third wave of infections breaking out across the nation, throwing everything into turmoil all over again.
Should that happen, no one actually knows what the Democrats will do — perhaps they can host a virtual convention with 4,000 people watching via Microsoft Teams or Zoom — or maybe, well who knows, really. It might even be forced to fall back onto some kind of modified, old-style smoke-filled room of party leaders (virtual, of course) to confirm Biden’s nomination, but without all the usual fanfare and foolishness. The problem with these alternatives is that the big convention gathering is a way to get the party and its nominees before the entire nation via television and online streaming. With no convention in the usual sense, who knows what they will do to achieve that goal.
While there was still an ongoing competition for primary wins and thus convention delegates, Sanders had generated an outpouring of great enthusiasm from among his supporters — and most especially among younger citizens — by virtue of some of his more attractive policy proposals. His large rallies, especially in and around university campuses, offered the astonishing spectacle of thousands of young, glowing faces cheering on the words of a gravel-voiced septuagenarian speaking in his inimitable Brooklynese and his near-Old Testament rhetorical style mixed with elements of the utopian socialism of the 1940s, as he castigated the super-rich and the craven politicians who would grovel before them.
However, his actual campaign was never really able to translate that enthusiasm at rallies and within the virtual world into real votes in actual state primaries sufficient to win the balloting, once the race moved beyond the Iowa caucus and the succeeding contests in New Hampshire and Nevada. As the campaign moved on to the South, Midwest and the rest of the Northeast and states where Democratic Party support was more ethnically and racially diverse and more in keeping with the profile of party supporters nationally, things became more difficult for Sanders. The longstanding ties Joe Biden had built up with middle-aged and older African Americans, many labour groups, as well as formerly Republican-leaning, better educated suburban voters, especially women, led to a string of primary victories for the former vice-president after his crushing victory in South Carolina.
The Sanders momentum turned out to have feet of clay, at least from the perspective of building a sustained, winning campaign and coalition. Those young, energetic supporters were not so energetic when it came time to cast votes (consistent with the voting history of younger people generally). As a result, Sanders’ vote totals were, in many states, lower than those he had achieved in his hard-fought 2016 race against Hillary Clinton.
Moreover, while the positions he took on the environment, health care, tax reform, and income redistribution initiatives had thoroughly captured the imagination of his supporters, these positions do not appear to have been the things that registered most with a majority of primary voters. For them, beating Donald Trump and, in effect, restoring something of the lustre of the Obama years was a more enticing prospect, and Joe Biden was increasingly able to portray himself as the heir to that legacy and its legitimate successor, by virtue of his service as Obama’s vice-president. In effect, the Biden promise of a return to a reassuring normality in public life amidst a troubled world proved more alluring to a majority than the possibilities of an economic and governmental services revolution would be, courtesy of Bernie Sanders.
But perhaps the most important mistake was in his team’s conception of the battlefield. In 2016, Donald Trump had successively dispatched one rival after another in the Republican primaries by winning many of them by rather slender pluralities, rather than absolute majorities, until the ones that came at the end of the chase. Trump was, like Sanders, an insurgent from outside the party’s mainstream — and indeed not even an actual member of the party until very late in the game. And both had the elements and appeal of the populist underdog, even if their platforms were very different. (Sanders has, in fact, run as an independent in all of his races to become a congressman and then senator over the years, ever since moving to Vermont and running for mayor of Burlington. Although he has voted with the Democrats in the votes that elect party leadership or confirm Democratic majority leadership of the respective chambers when that was possible.)
But the crucial difference in primary voting is that Republican primaries operate on a winner-take-all principle, so gaining a plurality in a vote can give that candidate the full slate of delegates, even if other candidates had split up what would otherwise be a majority of votes. For many primaries, that was the little secret of Donald Trump’s success. Democrats organise things differently, dividing up state delegates along a proportional basis. Once the number of candidates fell, even a winning majority victory in a state primary did not give any candidate all the delegates, as long as a candidate won at least 15% of the votes.
Accordingly, over the run of those primaries, with his increasing margin of victory, Joe Biden began to build what became an uncatchable lead. By the time Sanders decided to toss in his hand, the calculation was that of the remaining primaries, Sanders would need to gain 60%-plus of all votes cast in order to mount a credible challenge in a convention where Biden had not already captured sufficient delegates to win outright. Thus, by the time it became a two-person race as all of the other candidates withdrew, the game was over for Sanders.
In the past week, a growing roster of prominent, powerful Democratic politicians have stepped up to publicly endorse Biden’s bid for the nomination, including those other candidates who had already withdrawn from the race. This culminated in Bernie Sanders’ team’s announcements that the senator had returned home to think through his future options, then the announcement of his formal suspension of his candidacy, and then a surprisingly strong, warm endorsement of his rival, and his promise to campaign for him and to urge his own supporters to do likewise.
That last may be one of Biden’s great challenges, even though he has acknowledged that Sanders’ campaign has clearly set out some goalposts for the party on public policy — just as those ideas have helped recalibrate his own thinking. Biden will need to very carefully figure out how to embrace some of Sanders’ positions and ingratiate himself to some of his most vigorous public supporters such as Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, but without frightening the horses who brought him to the place where he now is.
Following Sanders’ announcement, former president Barack Obama delivered his own encomium to Joe Biden, stressing the candidate’s personal qualities, including his stability and grace under pressure, and his strength of character. Obama had heretofore kept out of the race publicly, preferring to let the would-be nominees duke it out on their own, but with Sanders out of the race, it was much easier to step up for the man whom he had made his running mate back in 2008. Biden’s hat trick was then complete when Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, also a previous challenger for the nomination, came forward with an equally gracious endorsement of Biden.
This has cleared the way for Democrats to train all their rhetoric on the president, rather than each other. Key among such targets would be Donald Trump’s now-obvious inability to govern, the calamitous handling of the Covid-19 emergency, the fights large and small with allies and neighbouring nations, the embarrassing personal subservience to Russia and Vladimir Putin, and the increasingly embarrassing behaviour the president displays before the entire world, almost nightly, in his Covid-19 media conferences.
The only problem with this picture, of course, was that two of the most visible failures of the president, his mishandling of Covid-19 and the ensuing economic collapse, have almost totally captured the news and attention of the country. With the various versions of the shutdown of the US, there is no way to host any rallies, organise any big public engagements, or to do the meet-and-greets Biden is really good at.
As a result, the would-be nominee is now something of a fifth wheel in the nation’s political conversation as Democratic governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, among others, have been leading the charge to manage the nation’s dealings with Covid-19, in the face of the confused welter of voices coming from within Donald Trump himself on any given day.
Cuomo, in particular, in his daily media conferences, has delivered a message that is fact-filled, highly engaged, emotionally warm, and, above all, unstintingly honest. Cuomo’s media conference has been so strong that the White House changed their own start time for their media engagements so as not to be seen competing with Cuomo.
But this has meant that Biden has, so far, had no easy way to join the conversation, given the fact that he has no actual executive role to carry out from his ad hoc television studio in the basement of his Wilmington, Delaware home. The very real challenge for Biden and his aides, advisers and supporters is to figure out a way to put him into the national dialogue about Covid-19 and the shattered economic landscape, without trampling over the voices of the party’s governors or making the discussion over policy even more chaotic than it already is.
In theory, any incumbent president presiding over a national epidemic that has now killed the equivalent of half the number of US soldiers who died during the entire run of the Vietnam War, in just four months; and whose economic record now reflects more than 22 million people applying for unemployment compensation (the US equivalent to the UIF in South Africa), the disappearance of millions of jobs, and the possibility that overall unemployment is already heading towards levels that recall the Great Depression should be ridiculously easy to defeat at the polls.
Think the defeats of Herbert Hoover, for example, in 1932; or even George HW Bush in 1992 to a lesser degree. But Trump’s hold over his core supporters seems to transcend actual facts and circumstances, reaching into some deep part of their subconsciousness where Trump’s illusion of reality matters more than what is actually happening in the world. Still, the polling is beginning to show growing disapproval with the way the government is handling the virus and the economy and some early national polls show a real shift towards Biden.
But the Biden and Democratic Party forces will need to shape their message carefully so as not to allow the incumbent president to shift the blame for this mess on to his expanding list of antagonists: the media, China, the World Health Organisation, Democratic governors, supporters of vote by mail, those scientists and doctors who hate the economy, Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer in Congress, and anybody else he can name. This is going to be one messy, unpleasant election campaign, even as it sets new rules for how it is even carried out. DM
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