When US voters go to the polls on November 3, it is an understatement to say they will face, once again, an unappetising choice for president. While Donald Trump stokes confrontation with China and uses the army to suppress domestic dissent, Democrat challenger Joe Biden has a history of being one of the party’s most conservative figures on domestic policy and a staunch supporter of regime-change wars.
So, how did the Democrats end up with Biden when Bernie Sanders was at one stage the front runner for the nomination? And where does that leave the left?
The turning point in the Democratic presidential primaries was a frenetic weekend of unprecedented manoeuvring by the party’s hierarchy at the end of February. At that point, Sanders had established a clear lead in the delegate count after primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and was ahead of Biden by more than ten points in the rolling average of national polls.
The fourth primary – South Carolina on February 29 – was one the polls had been saying Biden would win comfortably. In normal circumstances, his victory there would have been seen as no more than a fillip ahead of Super Tuesday, four days later, when 15 states were due to elect a third of the Convention delegates.
However, with Sanders certain to win California and leading in the polls in Texas, the Democrat establishment was panicking at the prospect of him emerging from Super Tuesday in the lead. After interviewing 93 leading figures, the New York Times (February 27) reported that the Democrats were “willing to risk party damage to stop Sanders”. Meanwhile, the Washington Post (February 29) said: “Top Democrats are increasingly alarmed that Senator Bernie Sanders could gain unstoppable momentum from the primary voting that starts next week.”
Something drastic had to be done, and Biden’s better-than-expected showing in South Carolina gave them leverage to pressurise two candidates occupying similar political ground – Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar – to drop out and endorse Biden ahead of Super Tuesday.
It’s impossible to overstate how unusual this is. Buttigieg and Klobuchar had both done unexpectedly well in the early primaries and were serious contenders. Normally candidates in their position would see how they fared on Super Tuesday and then decide whether or not to withdraw. But the situation was make-or-break for centrist Democrats, and the pair were ‘persuaded’ to do their duty.
This closing of ranks against Sanders was far from enough to knock him out on Super Tuesday, but it did give Biden enough of a boost for him to win narrowly in Texas, come a strong second in California and, with wins in nine smaller states, take the lead in the overall delegate count.
Though the Sanders campaign still had the capacity to bounce back, what no one had reckoned with was how quickly the COVID19 crisis would transform the situation both in terms of the political mood and the practicalities of campaigning.
In the weeks that followed Super Tuesday, rallies had to be cancelled and several primaries were postponed. At the same time, counter-intuitively, some Democrats switched from backing the Medicare For All message from Sanders, which you might expect to resonate in a pandemic, to the seemingly safe option of a former Vice President.
On April 9, Sanders announced that he was suspending his campaign because he couldn’t see “a feasible path to the nomination”.
Nevertheless, the battle for the Sanders policy agenda continued. After the campaign was suspended, Sanders and Biden appointed six Unity Task Forces to find common ground on climate change, criminal justice reform, the economy, education, health care and immigration. At the same time, Sanders kept his name on the ballots in states that not yet held primaries so that he would continue to gather delegates.
The task forces produced a 110-page report that served as a starting point for the policy debate at the Democratic convention last week. When it was first published in July, Sanders said: “Though the end result isn’t what I or my supporters would’ve written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York socialist member of Congress who co-chaired the climate task force, said it had “accomplished a great deal” including a target for 100% clean energy of 2035 (rather than 2050 as originally proposed by Biden) and what she described as ambitious plans for investment that would create millions of good jobs.
But the platform had some serious flaws, notably its failure to commit to ending fossil fuel subsidies and to adopt Medicare For All. On the latter, it talks only of ‘building on’ Obama’s Affordable Care Act in order to give private insurers “real competition to ensure they have incentive to provide affordable, quality coverage to every American.”
This failure to back a truly universal public healthcare system prompted prominent progressive members of Congress such as Ro Khanna (California) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) to join an estimated 800 delegates – nearly a quarter of the total – in voting against the platform at last week’s Convention.
The platform is – nominally at least – the basis on which all Democrat candidates will be standing in November when the party is looking to increase its majority in the House and advance in the Senate.
The elections are likely to produce a bigger group of progressive lawmakers. The four women known as ‘the squad’ – Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) – are set to retain their seats, the first three of them having seen off big money challenges. There have also been notable primary victories against incumbent establishment Democrats by Cori Bush (Missouri) and Jamaal Bowman (New York), whose 30,709 to 18,012 victory over Eliot Engel – chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee – came in the face of strong opposition from Hillary Clinton.
As valuable as these gains are, especially for the longer term, the immediate reality of Biden being the presidential candidate is causing some angst among supporters of Sanders. While Larry Cohen, a co-chair of OurRevolution, is urging progressives not to “run away from the lesser of two evils”; Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’s former national press secretary, says she’s “concerned we have no strategy to ratchet back the rightward creep that ‘lesser of two evils’ enables”.
That rightward creep was painfully evident at the Convention in August when speaking slots were given to the widow of former Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, and Bush-era Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who was discredited for peddling the WMD lie to the United Nations to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Trump, meanwhile, is doing his best to make Biden look palatable. His repressive reaction to the Black Lives Matter upsurge foreshadows a campaign that will play strongly to white supremacism. Though behind in the polls, he could – as in 2016 – secure a majority in the electoral college, without winning the popular vote.
Faced with that grim prospect, most on the left will swallow hard and hope that black civil rights icon Angela Davis is right in her assessment that Biden can be moved in a progressive direction through mass pressure.
Steve is a journalist, campaigner and the author of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics.
Order a copy of Game Changer here at the special price of £5.00, inclusive of UK postage. ORDER
Order the Kindle version of Game Changer at £5.99 here. ORDER