Little wonder that Bernie Sanders has dropped out now, when a global pandemic has ended the possibility of well-attended rallies and visits to key states holding primaries. Bernie was always at his best when shouting self-righteously about the bankers, the corrupt American healthcare system and the establishment politicians too scared to do anything about either. Coronavirus and its resultant lockdowns are much more advantageous to Joe Biden than his main rival; despite #WheresJoe trending on Twitter for a while, the sober, presidential announcements Biden released from isolation about the pandemic played well with Democrats and Republicans alike. This week, the former VP even shared a phone call with Trump, who he described as “very gracious” and “warm” (“It was a very nice conversation,” the president said, for his part.)
Despite Trump’s bluster about how Democrats were conspiring to keep the virtuous, put-upon Sanders out — a rather transparent attempt at getting a self-proclaimed socialist into the race, who would be easier to beat through scaremongering in key states like Florida — he showed his cards when he took that call from Biden. He clearly has more respect for “Sleepy Joe” than he makes out during Keep America Great speeches. In accidentally admitting that, he helped Biden push Sanders out the conversation.
It is all so cruelly ironic, of course, because the other thing coronavirus has made obvious is how sensible a policy Medicare-for-All would be. The US’s fractured healthcare system, where hospitals are competitors and data-sharing is discouraged, has cracked under the pressure. American exceptionalism led to a testing fiasco early in the pandemic; West Virginia was still proudly proclaiming that it had zero cases when citizens with coronavirus were claiming they’d been blocked from taking tests because the state didn’t want to “look bad”. Trump dithered for too long about allowing a cruise ship to dock in California because he didn’t want “the numbers” — which “aren’t our fault” — to double. Across the country, governors and mayors were making the choice to buy medical gear from private companies with city funds because there is no centralized data about who needs what and where. Sanders saw all this coming before it was a disaster, but few were willing to listen.
Now, however, they might be forced to. Bernie’s soft-socialist, collectivist ideas are well-suited to the recession we will now have to weather. The age of unfettered American capitalism is over. A Republican White House sending out $1200 checks to every US taxpayer would have been unthinkable just weeks ago; now that White House may be forced to bring in policies that some Democrats would have balked at in normal times.
On the eve of Super Tuesday — which feels like years ago but in fact happened only last month — the field suddenly thinned out in Biden’s favour when recent dropouts Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke announced their support for the former vice president and travelled out to Dallas to stand alongside him at a campaign rally. Back then, it was unthinkable that Biden would ever reach out to Bernie Sanders but completely plausible that he might have had a quiet phone call with his moderate competitors. Many theorised that Buttigieg, Klobuchar and O’Rourke might have been promised government positions in exchange for their endorsements.
In this new landscape, it is not unthinkable that the quiet phone call might have happened between Biden and Sanders. If Uncle Joe can have a civil conversation with President Trump this week, then he’s more than capable of making a deal with Bernie. If it happened, I imagine Biden might have said something like this: Everything has changed since the beginning of the year. Tenant protections, expanding social security, labor protection, free childcare and eliminating medical debt aren’t going to seem so radical in the months after coronavirus. There is scope to bring a lot of what you dreamed of, if you allow us to do this together.
“The future of this country is with our ideas,” Sanders said today while announcing the end of his campaign. And though many will be sad about that “painful decision”, he may well have been given the opportunity to work closely with a Biden-led White House — closer than could ever have been possible in the past.
It’s clear that today Biden won the battle. But it’s equally possible that in the long term, Bernie Sanders and everything he believes in will end up winning the war.