Politics & Policy

The Coming Biden and Bernie Show

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential campaign debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
If and when the race narrows to the strongest candidate in each ‘lane,’ Democrats will be forced to focus on the only questions that really matter to them.

Sure, anything can happen, and pundit predictions are hardly worth the pixels that deliver them. But if I were phoning my bets overseas to PaddyPower, I’d buy Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden and short Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. The four-person race looks set to become a two-person race in the near future, and I think the dynamic will be self-reinforcing. Biden vs. Bernie: a race for the ages — and the aged.

Biden has basically stayed at the top of the heap since he entered this race. He’s done so despite substandard fundraising and no cheering section in the media. Many Democrats detest the fact that he is leading. They worry about his verbal slip-ups and his politically incorrect statements. They don’t want the Democratic standard-bearer in 2020 to be a man old enough to remember doing deals with segregationists, much less one who seems proud of that history. They fear that he would become the party’s Bob Dole, a past-his-prime senator who got the nod through sheer seniority, unable to take on the energetic, if sleazy, incumbent. Yet while he’s been attacked by younger, hungrier, more diverse candidates, Biden has maintained his dominant position among African-American voters and kept a healthy plurality of the older Democrats who turn out in primary elections. And front-runners have a tendency to sweep through divided fields.

Standing in his way is Bernie, who is surging two weeks before Iowa, in striking distance of the lead there and, according to one reliable poll, holding a decent lead in New Hampshire. Part of his national surge is his increased performance among non-white voters.

I’d bet on the field to narrow to these two for two reasons.

First, there’s a tendency for the top-polling candidates going into Iowa to overperform in the final results, because the caucusing process ultimately forces supporters of low-performing candidates to cast their votes for stronger ones. Second, the possibility of Bernie’s winning may drive a stampede toward Biden or vice versa.

The emergence of a head-to-head race between Biden and Sanders would immediately clarify the choices for Democrats.

One septuagenarian — Sanders — has recently suffered a heart attack. The other septuagenarian — Biden — frequently seems to have senior moments in the middle of his sentences. A race between these two could eliminate age as a relevant dynamic, leaving clear questions of electability and ideology on the table.

And what then? On one side there is Biden, the more moderate Democrat who scares nobody by design — he’s framed his entire campaign as a return to normalcy — but doesn’t excite progressive activists. On the other side there is Sanders, whose has argued in recent debates that he is electable because he has the backing of a large, young, grassroots movement whose enthusiasm will become contagious. The viability of one could drive the viability of the other.

After many pointless hours debating the ins and outs of Platonic health-care reforms that will never be implemented and many pointless minutes worrying about personality, a Biden–Sanders clash would focus the race on the only questions that really matter to Democrats: Should the party move to the left or to the center? Do the necessary voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin want a major revision to the American economic model, or do they merely want a Democratic candidate who connects with them on the gut level, who won’t call them deplorable?

Those are debates worth having, and Democrats may have them sooner than you’d think.

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