Frank Bruni: Joe Biden just performed a miracle

What a difference a few days make. They brought Joe Biden back from the dead.

After a landslide victory in South Carolina on Saturday, he collected a bonanza of important endorsements Sunday and Monday. Then, on Super Tuesday, when 14 states voted, he did exponentially better than almost anyone predicted. He probably exceeded his own dreams.

Bernie Sanders supposedly had the momentum in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Biden just stole it. He’s resuscitated, resurrected, resplendent. It’s some kind of miracle.

“I am here to report: We are very much alive!” Biden exulted in a victory speech, and you could almost see the adrenaline pumping from his pores. You could hear, in his thunderous voice, an amalgam of amazement and pure joy. Rambling, bumbling Biden was mostly gone. In his stead was an exuberant, articulate champion.

Biden won in places where black voters make all the difference and in places where they don’t. He won in places — Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma — where he hadn’t even competed. He won Virginia by 30 points. He won Texas, where Sanders’s outreach to Latino voters was supposed to put him over the top. He won and won and won, taking the overall lead in the delegate count.

And his momentum may be even bigger than the Super Tuesday returns suggested, for three reasons. One, early voting in some states preceded his surge and probably didn’t reflect it. Two, the coalescing of other Democrats around him is so new that it may not have fully registered with voters. Three, exit polls affirmed that Democratic voters care more about choosing the fiercest adversary for President Donald Trump than about embracing a candidate whose positions they like best. Super Tuesday cast Biden as that adversary. It gave him that glow. So he could shine brighter still when another six states vote in a week.

That’s especially true in light of what happened Wednesday morning: Michael Bloomberg, who had an epically disappointing and decidedly un-super Tuesday, dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden. Votes that would have gone to him are much more likely to go to Biden than to Sanders.

Sanders could be in big trouble. Or not. He’s going to win California, the state with by far the greatest trove of delegates. And his impassioned supporters have already begun to portray Biden’s Super Tuesday showing as the product of some Democratic establishment trickery. Who knows how this will play out? If 2016 and 2020 so far have taught us anything, it’s not to get ahead of ourselves.

This much is safe to say: The landscape of the Democratic primary was messy, and now it’s clean. So is the choice. The contest for the party’s presidential nomination comes down to two very distinct visions and two very different old men.

So much for the most crowded field of Democratic aspirants in memory. So much for that field’s diversity — for the formidable women in the hunt, for the compelling candidates of color.

So much for the gradations of progressivism, for the shades of gray. Biden is as smack in the middle of the party’s mainstream, whatever that is, as they come. He’s also the establishment incarnate, moderation made flesh. Sanders, well, he’s the revolution. That’s his motto, his mantra. It might as well be his middle name.

Biden calls for healing. Sanders vows to fight.

Whose Democratic Party is it, anyway? We may need the rest of March — or longer — to find out. But we know, thanks to the clearing and clarifying function of the states that weighed in Tuesday, that the party has arrived at a fork in the road much neater than many of us were expecting.

Bloomberg is formally gone. Elizabeth Warren — who did miserably Tuesday, losing even her home state — is effectively out of contention, too. Bloomberg’s underperformance was especially striking and humiliating in the context of the hundreds of millions that he spent to woo voters. He got a terrible return on that investment.

He hadn’t been on the ballot in the first four states to vote, but he was on the ballot everywhere on Tuesday, and he won … the territory of American Samoa. Break out the Dom Pérignon! In Virginia, where Bloomberg invested maybe 20 times the money that Biden did, he got less than 10% of the vote, finishing fourth. Biden got more than 50%.

Bloomberg did surpass the 15% threshold in other states, but not by so much that he was positioned to catch up with Biden or Sanders as the race progressed. There was no rationale for pressing on. There was no point.

Watching the returns, I heard the voice of the playwright Edward Albee, or rather of one of his characters in “The Zoo Story,” who said — I’m paraphrasing liberally — that sometimes you have to go a long way out of the way to come a short way back.

That’s the story of the Democratic primary. Rewind to the beginning of 2019, or possibly earlier, and there was a supposition that the battle for the party’s presidential nomination would boil down to a well-known and nonthreatening moderate versus an edgier progressive. While the stars of that show hadn’t been chosen, Biden and Sanders were very much in the running.

Super Tuesday brought the Democratic Party back to that dichotomy and back to those two. It was as if the meteoric and historic rise of Pete Buttigieg, who led in the delegate count after Iowa and New Hampshire, had never happened. It was as if the Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar moments, not to mention the longer stretch during which Warren was ascendant, had been hallucinations.

It was almost — almost — as if Bloomberg hadn’t complicated the race with his wall-to-wall television commercials, funded by his personal Fort Knox.

All of that receded as Biden and Sanders took center stage. Each focused on the other in dueling remarks on Tuesday night. Sanders used his to bash Biden’s record, portraying him as a foreign-policy hawk, a pawn of billionaires and a tool of the financial industry.

Biden returned fire. “We want a nominee who will beat Donald Trump but also keep Nancy Pelosi as the speaker of the House and win back the United States Senate,” Biden said. “We’ve got to beat Donald Trump, and we will, but we can’t become like him.” He didn’t mention Sanders. He didn’t have to.

“What in God’s name happened to Joe Biden?” I wrote a few weeks ago, and I could and should ask the question again. But, this time, I’m wondering about his strength, not his weakness.

I do have preliminary answers and explanations: Many anxious Democratic voters have been itching to unite behind a candidate so that everyone can then turn their attention and focus their energies on getting rid of Trump, and they needed just a few prompts to do that. They got those prompts over the past 96 hours.

If they hadn’t been rushing toward Biden before, they had never been running away. He was always there, so safe and so dear, a harbor at the ready, a perfectly acceptable landing. The intensifying chatter about Sanders as an easily caricatured radical spooked some of them, giving them extra incentive to cluster around an alternative. Biden was waiting, with characteristically open arms.

Sanders should be concerned — not just because Biden has staged an extraordinary comeback or because Bloomberg’s exit will invariably redound to Biden’s benefit, especially if Bloomberg starts spending big on Biden’s behalf. Sanders isn’t flexing the electoral muscle that he keeps claiming to have. In some states Tuesday, he did significantly worse than he had when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and this wasn’t the first time that his performance this year paled next to what he achieved four years ago.

How can he boast of an expanding movement if, by some measures, he’s contracting? And how does that contraction square with his insistence that he’s the one to vanquish Trump?

On Super Tuesday, Biden was the superhero. He could yet step on his own cape: He’s Biden, after all. But until then, he’s soaring.

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.