There are two stories about how Joe Biden’s campaign, given up for dead two weeks ago, stormed back to take control of the Democratic primary, effectively burying the Bernie Sanders movement that had briefly seemed poised for an insurgent victory. One is for the pundits; the other, I suspect, is for the history books.
The pundit’s story analyzes the Democratic primary in terms of the Sanders campaign’s strategy, which seemed to assume that it was possible to win the party’s nomination as Donald Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016 — as a plurality candidate in a divided field who gradually brings the reluctant majority along when no other candidate can consolidate a larger coalition.
This strategy was by no means crazy; after the first three primaries it appeared likely to work. And had it worked, Sanders, like Trump before him, would have taken over a national political party on his own terms, conceding nothing to existing power brokers and would therefore have a clear opportunity to impose his will to remake the Democrats in his image, to dictate the terms of the establishment’s surrender.
But the rest of the field did consolidate, suddenly and surprisingly, around a resurgent Biden, and Sanders had neither prepared adequately for that possibility nor was quick enough to pivot in response.
It was not clear before Super Tuesday, but it does seem clear now, that Sanders had allowed himself to be tugged a bit too far left on culture-war issues to win the white working class in 2020 the way he did in 2016, while remaining too radical on economics to reassure and win suburbanites. And the moments when Sanders could have anticipated a possible Biden comeback — the days after his victory in Nevada — weren’t spent reassuring either set of Democrats that they could support his campaign without supporting a far-left revolution; they were spent in an either admirably principled or insanely truculent argument about how, no matter what the Cuban Communists did to political prisoners, you gotta hand it to their literacy efforts.
So Sanders lost because of his own choices, in the pundit story — because he expected a divided field and surging youth turnout and got a consolidated field and no youth surge, didn’t have a plan to win over waverers or moderates, and lost as he intended to win, a factional candidate to the end.
This story is entirely plausible, it fits with my analysis throughout the primary ... but still I suspect that in historical memory a different story will prevail, one that centers around neither candidate but instead makes the coronavirus the crucial player in the Democratic drama.
In this story, the Biden consolidation will be a subplot in the drama of contagion, the story of an America slowly awakening to the scale and scope of the coronavirus threat, and his swift victory will be placed in the same category as universities canceling classes and sending students home, or airports and tourist attractions emptying — all of them examples of a flight to safety, the surrender of grand plans and big ambitions in favor of a desire to just survive. Michigan voted for Biden overwhelmingly for the same reason that both Biden and Sanders canceled rallies just before the vote — because this is now the coronavirus election, against whose stark existential stakes all normal political battles must give way.
In this telling Sanders has less agency: There might have been more he could have done to reassure Democratic voters ideologically, but there was no way — even with Biden’s age and verbal stumbles — for a consummate outsider like the Vermont senator to portray himself as the most plausible choice to deal with such a mortal threat. Biden’s link to Barack Obama, in particular, gave him an insuperable advantage as the candidate of putting People Democrats Trust back in charge, and no clever socialist argument that Medicare for All would make it easier to take care of coronavirus patients was going to overcome the former vice president’s safe-choice status.
Is it possible to harmonize the two stories? To some extent: One can say that Sanders’ factional strategy enabled the Biden comeback, and that the coronavirus ratified it; one can say that, absent the coronavirus, Sanders could have extended the race for another month, but without a plan to expand beyond his true believers he still would have ultimately lost.
But Sanders supporters can take a cold sort of comfort from the fact that history likes to keep things simple. And the simplest way of describing the last two weeks of hectic politics and looming calamity is to say that whatever mistakes he made, whatever opportunities he passed up, in the final analysis Sanders didn’t lose the race because of his choices. He was vanquished only by an act of God.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.