The former vice president’s surge in the Democratic primaries reveals a split between those who aspire to transform the US politically – and those who seek victory at any cost.
When I was reporting on gun deaths in the US a few years ago, African American parents and youth workers would invariably evoke the ancient art of pugilism. “In my day,” they reminisced, “there were disputes but they would be rectified by these,” and they held their fists up as though about to box. “Nowadays they just reach for a gun and start shooting. A life means nothing any more.”
“What changed?” I’d ask.
Invariably they would mention poor parenting. “Babies having babies,” was a stock phrase often repeated, referring to teenage pregnancies. “And absent fathers.”
None of this was borne out by the facts. The people I was speaking to grew up during the crack epidemic, when gun deaths, particularly among the young, were far higher, and since then teenage pregnancies had fallen dramatically. Meanwhile, a government survey has shown that while African American fathers were less likely to stay with their partners, they were more likely to bathe, feed or read to their kids daily than white or Hispanic fathers. But these facts were as nothing when counterposed against the scripts that had become so ingrained they were uttered reflexively.
“[Ideologies] work most effectively when we are not aware that how we formulate and construct a statement about the world is underpinned by ideological premises; when our formulations seem to be simply descriptive statements about how things are (ie, must be), or of what we can ‘take-for-granted’,” argued the cultural critic and academic Stuart Hall.
The script that Bernie Sanders could not win against Donald Trump had been circulating widely for quite some time. Establishment Democrats, cable news anchors, newspaper pundits – indeed, all the people who said Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in four years ago – know it for a fact. His policies are too impractical, his supporters are too fanatical, his rhetoric too polarising. Everybody knows this; it is not subject to argument.
Paradoxically, the more he actually won in the Democratic primaries the more urgently it was repeated that he could not win in the presidential election. For the entire month of February, when matched against Trump, Sanders beat him in almost every poll by between 2 per cent and 8 per cent.
The certainty with which people insisted he could not beat Trump was matched only by the consistency with which the polling suggested otherwise. Sanders consistently polled better in February against Trump than every other Democratic candidate bar one.
In the first three contests, all in swing states, Sanders did well. He virtually tied with Pete Buttigieg in Iowa, won narrowly in New Hampshire – with Buttigieg in second – and then scored a decisive victory in Nevada, winning big among Latinos. The Democratic establishment, in a state of panic and desperation, watched on in horror.
“It’s this incredible sense that we’re hurt-ling to the abyss,” Matt Bennett, of the moderate group Third Way, told Politico. “I also think we could lose the House. And if we do, there would be absolutely no way to stop [Trump]. Today is the most depressed I’ve ever been in politics.”
One prominent cable host – later ousted over sexual harassment allegations – compared Sanders’ win in Nevada to the Nazi invasion of France (Sanders lost extended family in the Holocaust) and insisted Republicans would release opposition research about Sanders that would “kill him” in November.
They would have settled for Anyone But Sanders. The trouble is they didn’t have Anyone. Both Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar were too inexperienced and had no traction with minority voters; Mike Bloomberg was not on the ballot until Super Tuesday and had already been trashed in the debates by Elizabeth Warren, who had not come higher than third anywhere and was too left wing anyway. Meanwhile, Joe Biden, the only candidate who polled marginally better against Trump than Sanders, was flaming out, ending fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and a distant second in Nevada.
The script lacked a second lead and a redemptive plot twist.
Then came South Carolina. Pitched as Biden’s firewall, it was in reality his last chance. In his third run for the presidency, he still had never won a single state.
South Carolina is the first state in which the African American vote is decisive. That matters. African Americans are the most loyal section of the Democratic coalition. The party has only won the presidency once – in 1964 – without the black vote since the Second World War. For a generation the African American vote has also been the most risk averse, preferring the candidate they think can win over the candidate that backs the policies in which they believe.
In 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Obama ran for the nomination, the state’s most senior black politician, Jim Clyburn, withheld his endorsement. Only once Iowans had voted for Obama, making it clear that white America was ready for a black candidate, did Obama start to enjoy a consistent and significant lead in the state.
I confess that what drives black America’s political affections has always been a bit of a mystery to me. It seems to privilege racial performance over racist track record. Bill Clinton knows all the words to the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. He was also responsible for the huge hike in mass incarcerations and welfare reform, which did unconscionable amounts of damage to black communities. But so long as Clinton isn’t talking smack about Obama, he remains popular with African Americans.
Biden has a history of opposing busing (moving students to reduce racial segregation). He undermined Anita Hill when she testified about allegations of sexual harassment she had made against Clarence Thomas, now a Supreme Court judge, and he gave a gushing eulogy to the segregationist Strom Thurmond.
“I think African Americans, particularly older ones, have learned not to expect too much from Democratic politicians,” explains Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton professor in African American studies.
Biden bet his entire candidacy on the black, southern vote. He had no choice. He had nowhere else to go. He had been Obama’s loyal vice president; he had longstanding relationships with South Carolina’s political class. Clyburn endorsed him (61 per cent of South Carolina voters said it was an important factor in their vote; a quarter said it was the most important). The bet paid off. It was a blowout. Black voters turned out in huge numbers, favouring Biden over Sanders by four to one.
The field usually thins after Super Tuesday, when several states go to the polls, giving the straggling candidates one last lunge at the nomination before the cash runs out. This time many got out beforehand.
Once it became clear that Biden’s campaign had a pulse, the rest of the Democratic field – almost certainly with some encouragement, threats or incentives from the Democratic establishment – made way. The Anyone But Sanders Brigade had someone and didn’t want the impact dimmed by also-rans. Buttigieg, still a potentially viable contender in what could be a contested convention, pulled out, endorsing Biden. Klubochar did the same.
On 3 March – Super Tuesday – Biden romped home, defying polls that showed him trailing in many states. He won in swing states such as Virginia and North Carolina, in Warren’s home state of Massachusetts, in the South and in Texas. South Carolina was not a one-off and while African Americans were the cornerstone of his coalition, he proved he had broad appeal among suburbanites and moderates. There is a chance now that Biden becomes the candidate-by-acclaim, chosen in essence because voters think other people will also choose him, much as John Kerry ran the board in 2004.
Sanders took Super Tuesday’s biggest prize, California, as well as Utah, Vermont (his home state) and the swing state of Colorado. But the young voters he had counted on to expand the electorate did not show up in sufficient numbers. Polls show African Americans are the group most in favour of Medicare for all and free college tuition – two of Sanders’ marquee promises. There was something about Sanders or his prospects that they didn’t like. He had rallied his base but not galvanised many beyond it. In most places he led among those who had long made up their mind; but the significant number who decided for whom they were going to vote just a few days before chose Biden.
It was a serious blow for Sanders, who, in one night, went from the runaway nominee-in-waiting to the underdog struggling to regain momentum. His defeat in Michigan and elsewhere a week later, on 10 March, effectively signalled that his presidential ambitions were no longer plausible or viable. Despite significant efforts in the four years since he last ran, he had failed to gain any serious traction in the black community and got fewer votes this time in nearly every state, including Vermont, than he did in 2016.
Bloomberg, who had only the territory of American Samoa to show for his half-billion-dollar investment, withdrew and backed Biden; Warren also withdrew but has not endorsed anybody.
And so it was: after four years of pussy hats, women’s marches, #MeToo, Muslim bans, kids in cages at the border, Brett Kavanaugh hearings and young people protesting gun violence, the Democratic Party ended up with two white, septuagenarian men, shaking hands all around the country in the middle of an epidemic. What could possibly go wrong?
With just Sanders and Biden in the race, the battle lines are drawn between those whose sole ambition is to defeat Trump, and those who seek to provide a political alternative to him. That is not a question about who wants to win the election. In every primary and caucus, the priority for the overwhelming majority of voters was to get a candidate who could defeat Trump. That was true in states where Biden or Sanders won. And both are viable against Trump.
The question is: who you think is best equipped to do that and what you would want them to do with that victory? Do you want to win politically, or merely electorally?
Trump’s election in 2016 revealed a level of profound cynicism with the ability of the political classes to address the problems facing ordinary Americans, in a period where wages have stagnated but the price of college education and healthcare have surged and social mobility has calcified.
The Democrats lost in part because a significant portion of their base stayed at home. Meanwhile, Trump leveraged openly xenophobic, misogynistic and racist rhetoric to rally enough white Americans in just enough places to win the electoral college.
Some believe that getting rid of him will restore calm and order. They favour a return to the status quo, with democratic norms, rising inequality and some tinkering with healthcare provision and college fees. They would have settled for the Mueller investigation or impeachment hearings to get rid of him, but if it’s going to come to an election then they don’t want to take any chances with the unproven appeal of a career-outsider offering radicalism and revolution. Their desire is that, come November, they have an inoffensive candidate with a centrist agenda that Democrats will rally around because they have no choice, and independent candidates will break for because they are not scared. These people want to win electorally and, generally, they want Biden.
Then there are those who believe that Trump should be understood as the product of economic, political and social decay rather than the root of it. They want the Democrats to be bold and offer a compelling alternative vision. Anything less will either lose the election, or win it and then leave people even more frustrated after it fails substantially to improve people’s lives. These people want to win politically. They prefer Sanders.
Either could beat Trump. Turnout in these primaries has often matched or surpassed the record-setting levels of 2008, suggesting the Democratic base is energised and engaged. And Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is just the latest example of his vulnerability on matters of competence rather than ideology. True to form, every response to the crisis must first be filtered through the matrix of his own ego. In late February he claimed the coronavirus in the US was “very much under control”, slammed Democratic critics for exaggerating the problem and perpetrating a “hoax”and predicted the number of cases would soon be “close to zero”.
Neither candidate is without risk. Trump’s approval ratings are around where Obama’s were at this stage of his presidency. He has appointed anti-abortion judges, cut taxes and the economy is doing fine. His supporters generally think he is doing a good job. It’s unlikely that the Democrat nominee will find it an easy battle.
Even if Sanders won, there are reasonable doubts that he would be able to effect the political change he seeks. A social democratic overhaul offering universal healthcare, free tuition and debt forgiveness for students would have to get through the Senate – an inherently conservative body that wouldn’t even pass gun control after primary school children were shot dead in Sandy Hook in 2012. Obama had to fight for every vote just to get his moderate healthcare plan through in 2010. And that Sanders has proved unable to galvanise black voters is a serious problem. If they stay at home, he can’t win.
But Joe Biden would appear to pose a greater risk for the Democrats, for three reasons. First, he is a terrible candidate. He is not just gaffe-prone – swearing into live mics, being accused of sniffing women’s hair – he is a gif magnet: the potential source of endless viral memes. He rambles in strange and awkward ways. While discussing the Violence Against Women Act, which he co-sponsored, he told a baffled South Carolina audience on 27 February: “If someone in this room got up, took off all their clothes, and walked out the door, no man has a right to touch her. Zero.”
He went on, veering away from the question asked, to criticise the way rape victims are questioned. “Did you have underwear on? Were you wearing a bra? How short was your skirt?” Biden said. A 77-year-old man evoking naked women, underwear, bras and skirt-lengths for no good reason rarely ends well. He is overly tactile with women and his credentials for taking the pussy-grabber-in-chief to task are not the best.
There are moments when Biden doesn’t appear entirely with it. He told a crowd in Houston that he was looking forward to “Super Thursday”, and accidentally mixed up his wife and sister, both of whom were on the stage with him. Each of these lapses may be plausibly explained away, but once a reputation has set in, it can be difficult to budge. One fears he might just wander off mid-debate. True, he does not have Hillary Clinton’s baggage (though his son, Hunter, will provide fodder for right-wing cable anchors for the rest of the year) – but then he does not have her discipline either.
The second reason he is a terrible candidate is his political record – supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Iraq War, deregulation, social security freezes – which leaves him in a weak position to take the fight to Trump.
Third, and finally, the rationale behind nominating Biden is almost the same as it was for Hillary Clinton four years ago. Pitching a mainstream politician, embedded within the moneyed ranks of the political elite, against Trump is an approach that has been tried and tested, and has failed. One has to wonder what, if anything, moderates have learnt from the past four years. The Democrats need a new script that reflects the world we’re in rather than the world they are comfortable with. And if Biden does become the nominee, they need to find a way to make sure he sticks to it.