By Julia Azari
A year ago, it seemed like every week had brought a new entrant into a diverse group of presidential hopefuls, from the obvious to the unknown. One looming question was whether former vice president Joe Biden would enter the race, which he did in late April. Among Democrats, both worry and hope spread about the possibility of a nominee who was a woman, a person of color, a new entrant to national politics, or someone outside the usual ideological mainstream of the party. Over the course of 2019 and 2020, candidates dropped out until there were two remaining: both white men in their 70s, and long-serving members of Congress. The most recent (and probably last) debate of the nomination season makes for a grim contrast with the earlier, crowded and lively ones: Biden and Sanders debated at podiums spaced six feet apart, without an audience.
Biden went on to pull even further ahead in the delegate count, and now stands as the probable nominee under the rules we once knew. But the covid-19 pandemic has also shut down normal life in the United States, and it’s likely that this will have a significant and long-lasting impact. Not least is the way it will change what we talk about in the political arena, and may even alter the alliances and divisions that define our politics. What were the most important differences between the two final Democratic candidates? What did those differences mean, and what are their implications as we likely enter a new era in American life and politics, unlike anything we’ve seen before?
The obvious way to characterize the differences between Biden and Sanders is in terms of left-right ideology. In this volume, I wrote a piece (most of the writing took place in late 2018) arguing that progress vs. preservation was an under-appreciated cleavage within parties. This, to me, seems like the deeper disagreement between the two candidates, and possibly between these factions within the Democratic Party. Coalition-building will require some accommodation of different factions when it comes to policy preferences, but orientation toward the status quo is a much harder difference to reconcile.
One piece of evidence for this difference is the age gap between Biden and Sanders supporters. Katelyn Burns at Vox points out that Biden still performed poorly among younger voters as recently as the primaries on March 17, even as many other constituencies in the party have consolidated around the former vice president. Various observers have noted that this isn’t necessarily likely to pose a problem for Biden in the general election. It does, however, indicate a division within the party that is about voters’ relationship with change; younger Democratic primary voters seem more likely to embrace major change while older voters are more skeptical of whether large-scale systemic change is necessary or realistic – or maybe both.
But does the unfolding crisis of the pandemic change everything? My initial read is that it actually brings this difference to the political foreground. The covid-19 crisis highlights the tensions between two approaches: those that focus on immediate fixes and returning to “normal life,” and those that also take into account structural issues like social safety nets (or lack thereof), economic inequality, and the precariousness of the labor market. Problems with the healthcare system also fit into this second category. In the March 15 debate, there were moments when Sanders’ emphasis on major reform might have seemed awkwardly suited to the moment. For example, the New York Times’ Michelle Cottle remarked about Sanders’ debate performance: “No matter the topic or question, he was there to make his standard case for the brokenness of the American system and the need for a revolution…Not sure how this will resonate with anxious Americans worried more about how to weather the next few weeks than how to remake the economy or the political system.” Time may have changed the answer to this question. The week after the debate brought a consistent stream of grim economic news, with those working in the service sector hit especially hard. The resonance of a more populist and reformist economic message may be increasingly important for the apparently dominant “status quo” faction to acknowledge and address.
The nomination process may be mostly over, but the questions for the candidate seeking the presidency are just beginning. Critically, Democrats need to grapple with Obama’s legacy, which offers some clues about change/preservation dilemma might shape a presidency. The March 15 debate featured some more substantive engagement with some important issues, including immigration and deportations. But as Democrats anticipate the possibility of another presidency that begins in crisis, the contradictions of change and the Obama years will need to be faced. A president who campaigned on change actually invested a great deal in preservation (sometimes dictated by political circumstances and not choice): a relatively modest economic stimulus in 2009, industry bailouts, and healthcare reform that kept the basic structure of private insurance. As a result, Obama’s policies attracted criticism from both the left and the right. So far, the Democratic primary contenders have argued about who would be the heir to Obama’s legacy, and a bit about the wisdom of using that as a standard. Regardless of what they say now, the next Democratic president will have to contend with and learn from Obama’s struggles to simultaneously deliver change and reassurance. This would likely be the case no matter the circumstances, but a prolonged economic and public health crisis make it all the more urgent.