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Bernie Sanders Ends His Presidential Experiment

For the second time in four years, the Vermont senator fell short of the Democratic nomination. But his entry into presidential politics has transformed the party, and his influence will continue into the convention.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders suspended his second presidential campaign. “I wish I could give you better news,” Sanders said, “but I think you know the truth.”

Speaking from his home in Burlington, Vermont, for 15 minutes via web video stream, Sanders conceded Joe Biden’s prohibitive lead in pledged delegates for the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention, which has been rescheduled for August 2020, in Milwaukee.

In February, Sanders dominated the earliest statewide contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, while Biden stalled beneath former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in his third presidential campaign. But after Biden won his first statewide contest in South Carolina, his former rivals Buttigieg, Klobuchar, California Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke—a diverse, moderate coalition—consolidated their support for him and against Sanders. It was an abrupt change of fortune for Sanders, who was isolated even further after Warren declined to endorse him when she departed the race, underscoring his weakness in a contest that pitted the Democratic Socialist iconoclast against the party’s senior-most figureheads. Realistically, Sanders could sustain his plurality lead only when the field was fractured and overcrowded.

Warren was Sanders’s most like-minded presidential rival. In continuing her campaign after losing Iowa and New Hampshire, Warren didn’t hedge her support for Sanders’s left-wing economic agenda so much as she seemed to be telegraphing her reservations about his leadership model. The late-breaking Sanders-Warren rift underscored Sanders’s stunted interactions with his Democratic colleagues, including pivotal Biden ally South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn and Sanders’s own most prominent surrogate, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders and his supporters have often posited his economic agenda and leadership style as a unified theory of righteous governance; it’s a theory that Warren and Biden have adopted at times if only to revert back to favoring more mild, agreeable appeals to suburban moderates, and incremental improvements (if any) to federal commercial regulations and the welfare state. Sanders dedicated Wednesday’s concession speech to his key proposals, which he hopes to enshrine at the Milwaukee convention: Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a federal $15-per-hour minimum wage. “It was not long ago that people considered these ideas radical and fringe,” Sanders said. “Today they are mainstream ideas, and many of them are already being implemented in cities and states across the country. That is what we have accomplished together.” Sanders spoke optimistically about “the ideological struggle” between young leftists and older moderates, reinforcing his standing as the most exciting and influential figure in Democratic politics since Barack Obama.

But Sanders’s intellectual traction, and his potential influence in the party’s governing agenda, couldn’t overcome Biden’s esteem among the older voters who believe Biden can defeat Donald Trump. On Tuesday—despite statewide “safer-at-home” order—Wisconsin hosted the final competitive statewide contest between Sanders, who’d defeated Clinton in the state by 13 points four years ago, and Biden, who led Sanders by 25 points in the latest statewide polls. (Wisconsin election officials won’t announce the results until Monday.) Since Super Tuesday, though, the presidential campaigns had all but pivoted from the primaries to the general election. On Monday, Trump and Biden discussed the coronavirus pandemic by phone as Sanders, hosting his own “fireside chats” about the pandemic on Twitch, had already begun to recede from the daily news cycles.

For the past month, Sanders and his supporters have cited the coronavirus pandemic as a bleak, definitive vindication for his signature proposal, Medicare for All, which Biden opposes. “In terms of health care,” Sanders said Wednesday, “this current, horrific crisis that we are now in has exposed for all to see how absurd our current employer-based health insurance system is.” The largest unemployment spike in modern U.S. history—6.6 million jobless claims filed in a single week—solidifies his point: Several million people will lose health insurance coverage during a deadly, indefinite pandemic. It was this type of socioeconomic catastrophe that radicalized Sanders’s supporters against the Democratic Party’s conventional leaders when he first announced his presidential campaign five years ago. Sanders now offers a sort of humane certitude, and it distinguishes him from the politicians in both parties who resist the obvious insights about employer-based health insurance and its perils for unargued, undignified reasons. “Please also appreciate that not only are we winning the struggle ideologically,” Sanders said, “we are also winning it generationally.” It’s truthful but formless encouragement for a youthful political movement that has few substantial reasons to believe it has “won” anything in modern presidential politics against Clinton, Trump, and now Biden.