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Biden’s Journey Left

Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign on April 8. It’s easy to forget, preoccupied as we all are now with the coronavirus and protests across the nation against police violence, what a precipitous fall this was. For a brief period after his smashing victory in the Nevada caucus on February 22, it was almost universally assumed that he would be the Democratic nominee. “Bernie Twitter” was ecstatic. Folks I know in the moderate wing of the party were beginning to make peace with the idea and preparing to support the independent Vermont senator’s bid for the White House.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden; drawing by Tom Bachtell

Then on February 29, exactly one week after Nevada, Joe Biden crushed Sanders in South Carolina. Three days later, in the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries, Biden won ten out of fourteen contests, many by quite large margins. And that was that. I’ve been writing about Democratic primaries since the 1988 race, and I don’t recall a single one in which the apparent end result flipped so emphatically and suddenly.

It’s hard for any politician to make the mental admissions to oneself required to end a presidential campaign; for a candidate like Sanders, who called for political revolution and seemed to have victory so near that he was surely daydreaming about the list of speakers at his convention, I imagine it was particularly hard. The struggle to accept defeat extends to supporters—perhaps doubly so with some of Sanders’s strongest supporters, who vocally detest the Democratic Party, people who call themselves liberals, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, and basically anyone who isn’t Sanders (or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

But even as some of his supporters were digging in their heels, scrambling to knock Biden out, Sanders himself was suing for peace. Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s well-regarded campaign manager, told me that, as the senator ended his campaign, he made clear that cooperation would be the order of the day. “Senator Sanders asked me and [longtime adviser Jeff] Weaver to reach out to our Biden friends and see what would be available if we were to bring these worlds together,” Shakir said.

The friends in question were Ron Klain and Anita Dunn, two establishment Democrats. There are actually two lefts within the Sanders orbit. One I would call the “outside left,” the hard-shell “Bernie-or-bust” contingent referred to above: younger, more New York–centered, strident, and absolutist. The “inside left,” which includes people like Shakir, who has a Washington pedigree—he has worked for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—sees value in urging the moderate (and elected) figures left. This group does have respect for people like Klain, a frequent and fierce critic of Donald Trump on MSNBC who, as Obama’s Ebola response coordinator, showed the world a few short years ago that the United States of America actually knew how to contain a virus.

In fact, the lines of communication…


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