Final Thoughts on the Democratic Primaries

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Ch... CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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March 17, 2020 10:38 p.m.

Barring a personal tragedy, Joe Biden will be the nominee. My preference, given the difficulty of holding primaries during the pandemic and the need to focus on defeating Donald Trump in November, is for Sanders to concede – and I voted for him in 2016 and would have done so again. If Sanders continues to campaign, it should only be around his issues. No attacks on Biden for stands he took 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. I can think of no worse (possible) fate for the country than Trump’s re-election. Here are some final thoughts about the primaries and what comes next:

Biden: He showed in his debate with Sanders that he is up to the challenge of defeating Trump in November. His great strength is his political personality. He comes across as a man of the people. He has a reassuring presence. And while he has made some bad decisions as a senator, and is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, he is far, far preferable to Trump. Judicial nominations, regulatory agencies and cabinet departments, anything to do with science, the Iran nuclear deal. The list goes on.

I didn’t like Biden committing himself to the sex of his vice president. I am a traditionalist on these matters, especially in there really perilous circumstances and with a candidate, if he won, would be 78 when he took the oath. You pick the person who will help you politically in November and who (especially in this case) would be patently qualified to succeed you. If that’s a woman, fine.

My own choice (with the only worry being her age) would be Elizabeth Warren. But I doubt very much that Biden’s Wall Street donors would allow him to pick her. Amy Klobuchar or Kamala Harris might be OK. Maybe one of the governors, but it would be hard, for instance, for Michigan’s governor Gretchen Whitmer to leave in the midst of a health crisis. Stacey Abrams doesn’t have the requisite experience – whatever her talents – to be a credible presidential candidate qua replacement.

Sanders: He could prove to be a heroic figure if the country doesn’t descend into chaos. We – and I’d include at least Western Europe — are at a transitional moment in our history, going from a period of market fundamentalism and unfettered globalization to a period where government is going to have to play a very large role in the economy. The Great Recession was the first warning sign that capitalism wasn’t working; now we have the coronavirus, for which we have proven to be unprepared – and not just because of Trump’s incompetence, self-dealing and ignorance. It’s also because we have allowed the market imperatives of private drug companies, medical equipment makers, insurance companies and hospitals too much influence over health care policy.

I would expect two broad alternatives to emerge over the decade, although I would not expect either in pure form to predominate; first, a Republican approach along the lines laid out recently by Senators Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley. They have promoted an industrial policy aimed at reviving American industry, which would also help revive the mid-sized and small towns that were once centers of American prosperous and are now plagued by opioid addiction. They openly attack market fundamentalism. You can read about their approaches in American Affairs and also National Review.

Where they might differ with Democrats is on the urgency of addressing climate change, unions, business regulations, and the generosity of social welfare policy. But this version of Republicanism would be preferable to the laissez-faire policies (except when it comes to subsidies for big business and the rich) promoted by Mitch McConnell and the House Freedom Caucus. Boris Johnson seems to have taken this Rubio-Hawley path in Great Britain.

The other alternative would be what Sanders, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and, to some extent, Warren have advocated. They would also promote American industry and try to rein in footloose multinationals. They would invest heavily in infrastructure and education. But they would also try to revive the labor movement and adopt measures that would give workers and, in some cases, representatives from local communities influence over what businesses do. They would stress economic democracy, changing the balance of power in private and public decision-making, which is tilted way over on the side of business and the wealthy. They would try to remove healthcare and education from market control.  In 2016 and 2020, Sanders pointed the way toward this kind of democratic approach to industrial and social reconstruction. If the U.S. moves in that direction in the future, he will be remembered fondly.

I want to say something, too, about the attacks on the “Bernie Bros.” I don’t watch cable news that much, but I have read enough snotty comments from New York Times and Washington Post “pundits” about “Sanders and his fleet of Bernie Bros who slash and burn, attack and smear other Democrats.”

I suspect few of these pundits have spent much time attending Sanders’ rallies and interviewing his supporters. Some are cherry-picking twitter comments. I went to rallies in 2015 and 2019 and interviewed scores of Sanders’ supporters. Many of them were kids from community colleges and modest four-year institutions, a large number of elementary school teachers and healthcare workers, some grandparents who were around in the Sixties. They didn’t have worked-out ideologies. They were OK with socialism, but they imagined it to be Scandinavia not the Soviet Union. They associated it with cooperation not competition. A lot of them got interested in politics because of Sanders.

These Bernie supporters are, I would hope, the future of American politics, and should be treated with respect, not dismissed. If you don’t believe me, read the story by Paul Starobin on Sanders’ supporters in The Philadelphia Inquirer – Starobin does journalism — or the analysis by social scientist Jeff Winchell of the various tweets that shows that “much of the discourse around the Bernie Bros. seems to rely on skewed anecdotes that don’t stand up to scrutiny.”

Warren: A year before the campaign started, I was told by an ardent Sanders supporter who worked on Capitol Hill that Warren had “the best staff in the Senate” and would “make a great president.” I was impressed. I was also impressed by Warren’s fight against Biden’s bankruptcy bill and for the consumer financial protection agency. My only beef with her was her Jeffersonianism. It would hardly help us now to break up the drug companies. We need to regulate them and if they don’t comply, take them over.

I probably would have still voted for Bernie for special reasons – all things being equal, I’m a single issue voter on Israel, and Sanders’ position on the occupation was an immense step forward — but Warren was always at least my second choice for president and during the weeks after Sanders’ heart attack my first. And if I had to put any of the candidates in charge of dealing with the coronavirus, it would probably be her or …(I am forced to admit) … Michael Bloomberg.

Undoubtedly, sexism played some role in her failure to get past Super Tuesday, but I’d say that beyond that, she lacked a personal touch as a politician – compared, let’s say, to my former senator Barbara Mikulski. (Readers from Wisconsin might site Tammy Baldwin, a lesbian from Madison, who does miraculously well in counties that went for Trump). Warren couldn’t even win her own state. She seemed to be the candidate of what Thomas Piketty in his new book calls “the Brahmin left.” I would still like to see her as VP or as secretary of treasury but I suspect Biden won’t accept her.

Bloomberg: I never liked the idea of a billionaire buying the election. In fact, I don’t like the idea of the existence of billionaires. I was also bothered by Bloomberg giving money to Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s re-election campaign, praising him because he “took on the unions” by helping pass a right-to-work law in the state. He’s a Republican who has “liberal” positions on social issues like guns, abortion, and immigration. But I’ll give him credit for two things. First, he clearly entered the race because he thought Trump had to be defeated and that Biden was proving incapable of doing the job. Once Biden showed he was capable, Bloomberg got out. He really wasn’t after glory and power, but trying to do what he thought best for the country.

Second, during the debates, when the subject turned from his past misdeeds to science-based policy, he gave the most intelligent answers of any candidates. Take climate change. I have felt that Sanders and Warren went off the deep end by ruling out nuclear power altogether and natural gas as transitional fuels to get to a carbon-free country. And they want to eliminate all instances of fracking immediately. When Bloomberg was asked about climate change and fracking in the debate, he replied,

You have to convince the Chinese that it is in their interests as well. Their people will die just as our people will die. It is India that is an even bigger problem. It is an enormous problem. Nobody is doing anything about it. … We could right here in America make a big difference. We’re closing the coal fired power plants. If we enforce some of the rules on fracking so that they don’t release methane into the air and into the water, you’ll make a big difference…When it is done poorly like they’re doing in too many places where the methane gets into the air, it is very damaging. It is a transition fuel. You want to go to all renewables. That’s still many years from now.

He sounded like he knew the issues, and wasn’t being swayed by the passion of some liberal groups around this issue.

All in all, I am deeply worried about the country but more optimistic than I was a month ago about the Democrats replacing Trump and holding the House. With Steve Bullock running in Montana, the Democrats even have a chance of getting to 50 or more Senate seats. As a presidential candidate, Biden could win back enough of the white-working class votes to defeat Trump and prevent the Democrats from becoming the party of upscale metro dwellers and downscale minorities. Just as you don’t want a Republican party that writes off African-American voters, you don’t want a Democratic party that writes off whites from deindustrialized America as “deplorables.”

If Biden wins, he will prevent the disaster of a second Trump term: the sheer violence it could unleash in the country, the bilious incompetence of the man, the damage he can do to the courts, the government, the air we breathe. But I suspect Biden will primarily be a placeholder for the future. He’ll put his finger in the dike for four years.

The next generation of Democrats will have to figure out how to build a majority party. They will have to figure out how to make capitalism serve the national interest, and if that meets resistance, as it seems to have done in parts of the healthcare industry, replace private with public ownership and control. If they get a chance to do that, they can thank Biden for getting rid of Trump. But they can also thank Bernie Sanders for pointing the way forward.

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