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Joe Biden’s Restoration Meets Bernie Sanders’s Revolution

Super Tuesday turned the Democratic presidential primary into a two-man race, revealing the fundamental contrast that will determine who the party will nominate to take on President Donald Trump

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past year, Bernie Sanders’s rivals played nice. They flattered the Vermont senator. They commended his candor in presenting his left-wing agenda, and confirmed his influence, to various degrees, in their respective agendas, even as they disputed his legislative outlook on pragmatic grounds. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s rivals took the former vice president for granted. They scrutinized Biden’s Senate record far more rigorously—and quotably—than they scrutinized Sanders’s. They seemed to agree that Biden’s heyday in Democratic politics in former president Barack Obama’s administration had come and gone. Biden memorialized the party’s past. Sanders was rewriting the party’s future. Sanders wrote “the damn bill,” Medicare for All, which Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris, and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg co-opted to prove their progressive bona fides. But then Sanders’s rivals reconfigured against him. On Monday, Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke endorsed Biden at campaign events in Dallas, hours before 14 states, including Texas, opened the polls on Super Tuesday. In Dallas, Biden united his former rivals in a display that seemed designed to underscore Sanders’s distance from real power. “I’m looking for a leader,” Buttigieg said, citing Biden. Klobuchar told the crowd, “I cannot think of a better way to end my campaign than joining his.”

On Saturday, Biden won the South Carolina primary, his first statewide victory in the span of his three presidential campaigns. South Carolina launched Biden’s comeback against the once-dominant Sanders. On Super Tuesday, Biden swept Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and, most shockingly, he upset Sanders in Texas. He also upset Sanders and Warren in Massachusetts, and won in Minnesota, too. Two weeks earlier, Sanders—having won New Hampshire and Nevada—seemed poised to sweep his rivals in their home states and thus accelerate the Sanders vs. Biden contrast, simplifying the distinction between the two opposing ideologies in the Democratic Party on far more favorable terms for Sanders’s left-wing insurgents. Biden was always expected to win South Carolina, but it appeared that his victory might be a consolation prize for an otherwise disastrous campaign, which has resembled a ramshackle operation in comparison to Sanders, Warren, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s respective campaigns. On Super Tuesday, Biden proved his political resurrection.

Sanders won California, a stronghold that proves his broad popularity across the party’s core constituencies: young people, working-class voters, college-educated voters, blacks, and Latinos. Sanders also won Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. He’s not so far behind Biden in the overall delegate tally. There’s delegate math, which complicates the Sanders vs. Biden dynamic and the basic, first-place determination of winners and losers from Super Tuesday; Warren and Bloomberg each won some delegates, but they failed to gain the momentum required to exceed Biden and Sanders in the next several contests. On Wednesday, Bloomberg withdrew from the race and endorsed Biden. Reportedly, Warren plans to withdraw in order to bolster Sanders before the March 10 contests in Mississippi, Missouri, Michigan, North Dakota, Idaho, and Washington. Ultimately, Warren couldn’t displace Sanders any more or less effectively than Bloomberg could displace Biden. A year ago, Sanders and Biden telegraphed the terminal contrast between revolution and restoration. Speaking at his campaign rally in Vermont late Tuesday night, Sanders said, “You cannot beat Trump with the same-old, same-old kind of politics.” In Biden’s victory speech, he said, “We need to bring everybody along. We want a nominee who will keep Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House.”

Klobuchar, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Harris, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker had 13 months to chart an alternative course toward President Donald Trump’s defeat in the general election. They failed. The moderates, having taken so many detours in the past year, have now resorted back to Plan A: nominate Obama’s popular wingman to defeat the unpopular Trump. Meanwhile, Sanders has assembled a young, diverse, working-class coalition—the most miraculous contingent in Democratic presidential politics since Obama in 2008—to overcome Trump’s old, white, middle-class vanguard. Trump might win re-election, despite his broad unpopularity, on the strength of his core supporters. Sanders might win the Democratic presidential nomination, despite the disapproval of the party’s leadership, on the strength of his own coalition. Hence Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s rush to reinforce Biden so soon after ending their own presidential campaigns: Moderate Democrats aren’t clamoring for alternatives to Sanders so much as they’re clamoring for leadership from the party and cohesion against Trump. Sanders, Republicans stress, is a socialist, while Democrats stress, he’s not a Democrat.

Sanders has been the party’s bold, exceptional player. He oversees the most impressive campaign. He leads the party in so many ways, but he does not plausibly command it as Hillary Clinton once did, and Biden now does. In 2016, Trump defaced the GOP. He didn’t just defeat Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, et al. He retired them. He recast them as losers beyond hope for political rehabilitation in this century. Four years ago, Trump swept Super Tuesday. Gradually, he won control. For the past year, Democrats have struggled to draw sensible lessons from Trump and the many Republican rivals—well, former rivals—who failed to deny him the party’s presidential nomination four years ago.

The Democratic Party’s leaders haven’t internalized the imperative to defeat Trump so much as they’ve internalized the imperative to regain control. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton lost the general election to Trump despite “I can’t lose the general election to Trump” being the major rationale in drawing the contrast between herself and Sanders. In 2020, Biden renews Clinton’s fateful rationale against his “good buddy” Sanders. Biden is no Clinton—he’s played nice with Sanders thus far. Sanders, however, might note some distressing similarities in the campaigns waged to isolate him once and for all.