Can Biden beat Trump? The truth is he's just as much of a risk as Bernie

The 'sensible, establishment choice' is just as likely to garner votes from former Republicans as a populist with a bold new plan

Holly Baxter
New York
Wednesday 04 March 2020 04:41
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Super Tuesday round up: Joe Biden's huge comeback puts him head-to-head with Sanders

As the dust settles on Super Tuesday, Democrats are left with two clear frontrunners: former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. Biden, who was seen as dead in the water only a couple of weeks ago, benefited from a flurry of endorsements just before 14 states went to the polls. Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke (remember him?) all turned up in Texas to profess their belief in former President Obama’s old running-mate. And most of them were talking about electability.

“I’m voting for Joe Biden because he can defeat Donald Trump,” O’Rourke wrote in an email that hit my inbox early Tuesday morning. “Having him at the top of the ticket will help our down-ballot candidates, especially in Texas,” he added. “… Joe can beat Donald Trump because he is the clear contrast to Donald Trump. Joe Biden is kind and decent. Empathetic and caring. He will reassert our moral standing in the world at a moment that it’s been called into question.” A couple of paragraphs later, Beto added that he also admired the “integrity” of Elizabeth Warren, the way in which Michael Bloomberg had “used his wealth for good”, and the way in which Bernie Sanders has “consistently and successfully pushed this country to think big”.

“Thinking big” never means “being electable” — everybody knows that. But is it really true that Bernie Sanders’ big ideas — those calls for full structural and systemic reform — make him less likely to appeal to American voters than steadfast, sensible Uncle Joe? I’m not convinced.

The problem with calling someone unelectable while thousands of people turn out to vote to them is it can make you look a bit foolish. Whether or not the DNC thinks that Sanders will speak to the entire US population in November’s general election, it’s undeniable that his rallies have been well-attended and have translated into real-life voters turning up to the ballot box. And the simple fact is that there is overlap between Sanders voters and Trump voters; they’re just not the same Trump voters who might be tempted over by Biden.

In 2016, Trump asked Americans to vote for a revolution with a maverick at its helm. Democrats chose a safe, establishment candidate. This wasn’t the year to mess around, they said. They needed someone guaranteed to knock an inexperienced idiot like Trump out of the park. We know how that strategy ended up. Yet we are being sold the same reasoning again, as if 2016 — and the midterms in 2018, where a surge of young progressives won it for the Democratic Party — never happened.

There are a lot of swing voters in the United States. For better or worse, they tend to vote on issues that directly affect them, such as healthcare, personal taxation and gun rights. They made it loud and clear in 2016 that they wanted to drain the swamp, stick it to the establishment and bring the troops home from endless wars. Trump hasn’t held Wall Street or any of his billionaire buddies to account, but Bernie promises he will in no uncertain terms. An impeachment and a Mueller report later, some who believed in Trump back then may well be ready to believe in Sanders now.

Then there’s the other side. Biden is a household name who stood beside one of the most beloved presidents in American history. There’s no denying he knows how it all works and that he already has a working relationship with some of the world’s most powerful leaders. The “Never Trump” movement, comprising Republicans embarrassed by what The Donald has done to their Grand Old Party, has been growing in ranks over the past four years. Some of those “Never Trumpers” have been saying that they would be willing to vote for Biden. They consider the situation within their party so dire that they’d rather press the reset button and start again in 2024. But those people — people for whom “socialism” is the dirtiest of dirty words — could never countenance voting for Bernie Sanders. If Sanders was the Democratic nominee, they’d either hold their noses and vote for Trump or fail to turn up to vote at all. That’s a powerful argument in favor of Biden.

The problem is that those people might fail to turn up even if Biden is the nominee. Can we really count on dedicated, life-long Republicans to switch allegiances and vote for someone so emblematic of a previous Democratic administration? Would a group of “Never Bernie” Democrats seriously go to the ballot box for Dick Cheney? Counting on this group of voters to come out for Biden is just as risky as counting on disillusioned former Trump evangelists to ditch Make America Great Again and hop on board the Medicare for All train. Both strategies make for an uphill struggle. This polarization is what such a ridiculously overstuffed race for the nominee gave us.

Consider what the young, enthusiastic backers of Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke might do when faced with the choice between Biden and Trump. In their hearts, they will most likely be “blue no matter who”. But will that get them out to vote early in the morning or late at night on election day? More than a few former Mayor Pete campaigners told me this week that they’d been left confused by his quick endorsement of Biden — only five minutes ago, weren’t they backing a millennial touting “a new kind of politics”? And wasn’t Biden offering a kind of optimistic nostalgia, a return to the good old days? It seemed like a bait-and-switch of the cruelest kind.

We can’t know whether Biden would unseat Trump in November in the way moderate Democrats hope he will — but we can learn the right lessons from the past four years. Nothing is guaranteed, and electability doesn’t always mean what you think it means. If we’re to move towards a Trumpless future, we first have to admit that the “safe choice” in the Democratic race dropped out a long time ago.

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