Coronavirus Crisis or No, Bernie Sanders Is Not Going Down Easy - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Coronavirus Crisis or No, Bernie Sanders Is Not Going Down Easy

Coronavirus Crisis or No, Bernie Sanders Is Not Going Down Easy

By Jennifer Psaki

Democratic presidential hopefuls former US vice president Joe Biden (L) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (R) take part in the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)


Because the end of the primary is not here yet.

By Jennifer Psaki

Jennifer Psaki is a former White House communications director who served under President Barack Obama.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is not leaving this race quietly. And after Sunday night’s debate, it is pretty clear that the end will be messy.

After a thoughtful, if not gaffe-free, first 30 minutes focused on the ongoing global health crisis and the candidates’ differing approaches, Sanders decided to dust off the Joe Biden opposition research book that has likely been stashed in his campaign headquarters for years, and went page by page. And the former vice president took the bait. Far too often.

The attacks ranged from Biden’s opposition to tuition-free college to a disproven attack on Biden’s record on Social Security.

Sanders went after Biden’s support for the 2005 bankruptcy bill and his support for the Iraq War. “It takes courage sometimes to vote and do the right thing,” Sanders said, ticking off his own “no” votes.

This is Sanders’ last walk off the presidential contest stage, and he may want it to be a long one. 

Biden made major news by declaring he’d pick a woman as his running mate. But he also got into the weeds with Sanders on Senate debates of yore, lobbing back attacks on Sanders votes against background checks for gun purchases and his vote that would allow gun manufacturers to remain exempt from legal liability.

All of the yelling back and forth was about the past at a time when millions of people are trying to figure out what their reality looks like over the next few months during the worst global health crisis in our lifetime.

So how did we get here?

A few weeks ago, most betting was on Sanders positioning himself after Super Tuesday to be on track for the nomination. That all changed, it turns out, with Rep. Jim Clyburn’s decision to endorse Biden in the days before the South Carolina primary. 

After handily winning the South Carolina primary, Biden continued to run the tables on Super Tuesday and then on Super Tuesday Part Two just a week later. It was the biggest comeback in presidential primary history.

I voted for Biden on Super Tuesday and I was shocked. Imagine how Sanders and his supporters felt.

When Sanders declined to go out and speak last Tuesday, there was speculation he might be dropping out. When he spoke the next day, there were hopes that he would have some words of encouragement for his committed and loyal supporters and that he would take some time to gracefully bow out. 

He decided to proceed with the debate, which CNN moved from Phoenix to Washington, without any crowd or media, amid the coronavirus pandemic. The hope from not just Biden supporters, but also many independents, Republicans and Democrats concerned about the impact of a dragged-out primary on the possibility of defeating President Donald Trump, was that this would be a moment of unity. 

Yes, they would have their differences. They have different points of view on health care — which is the No. 1 issue for most Democrats in the primary process. And while that issue has been debated nonstop through the primary process, there are strong points of view on both sides.

They have different strengths among the electorate with Sanders energizing voters under 30 and even under 40 in a way that Biden is not.

Biden has won an overwhelming percentage of the support of African Americans. Sanders nearly tripled Biden’s support among Latinos in Nevada.

But Sunday’s performance made clear that Sanders is not quite done yet. Despite the delegate math, it is possible he sees a path forward. Perhaps he hopes that if he can somehow overperform on Tuesday in states like Ohio, Illinois and Florida (none of which he is expected to do well in), he can turn the momentum around.

It is also possible that he just wanted to show his supporters that he was going to fight for the issues that built the movement behind him.

This is also his last walk off the presidential contest stage, and he may want it to be a long one. 

He had some important moments. Anyone under age 60 would identify more with Sanders’ passion and alarm about the impact of climate change.  He raised some important points about the impact of the coronavirus in the weeks and months to come on workers and families worried about paying mortgages and making ends meet.

But this moment is all about the stresses and fears that millions of people across the country are feeling about the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. And while Biden came across as far more prepared, experienced and focused on the crisis of the moment, he too needs to do a better job focusing on the people he is running to represent and the man he is trying to defeat. And less on litigating the past.

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