Biden invites the left into his coalition to take on Trump

Senator Bernie Sanders (R) endorsed the candidacy of Joe Biden (L) in the US presidential election in November

For all practical purposes, Joe Biden has emerged as the Democratic Party’s nominee in the US presidential election in November. There was an inevitability about it once Bernie Sanders sensed that despite his impressive network of volunteers and a robust fundraising operation, the hard realities of delegate math was loaded against him. 

After winning just seven of the 26 primaries held in March, trailing Biden by around three hundred pledged delegates, Sanders faced a number that was impossible to bridge. 

However, there are aspects to Sander’s exit and subsequent endorsement of Biden that must be properly understood. Clearly, there is no conspiracy theory floating around — although President Trump tried hard to plant one — that Sanders was done in by the Democratic Party establishment. 

Sanders’ endorsement of Biden is authentic and emphatic, and stands in sharp contrast with his reluctant endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2016. The sentiment between the Biden and Sanders campaigns was never really hostile, unlike with Clinton. The residual rancour lingering in Clinton’s mind welled up when she recently eviscerated Sanders by saying, among other things, “Nobody likes him.” 

In fact, a convivial atmosphere prevailed largely with Biden and Sanders admitting finally that they had differences but they were longstanding friends (which they have been), and saw themselves in a coalition with each other. 

Sanders summed up this way, “I know you [Biden] are the kind of guy who is going to be inclusive. You want to bring people in, even people who disagree with you. You want to hear what they have to say. We can argue it out. It’s called democracy. You believe in democracy. So do I. Let’s respect each other. Let’s address the challenges we face right now and in the future. And in that regard, Joe, I very much look forward to working with you.” 

On his part, Biden too made overtures to Sanders. If an analogy is to be drawn from a plural democracy, it is as if the party which won the election absorbs its nearest opponent in a governing coalition by offering to it a substantive say in the political agenda and a share of key appointments. 

The two of them have decided to constitute six or so working groups to harmonise their campaign planks, including on foreign policy. As the winning candidate Biden didn’t have to do that. But he chose to. To be sure, such overtures come naturally to Biden. His long record as a senator — spanning virtually his entire adulthood — testifies to his distaste for zero-sum thinking. 

Biden is a master of the art of winning by closing the divide through compromises and concessions. He’s been famous for making coalitions on the senate floor to carry forward legislative work — a trait that attracted him to Barack Obama. His conciliatory temperament and his transactional and coalitional politics won over Sanders. 

The proposed working groups is itself an innovative idea that allows Sander’s ideas and staff to shape Biden’s campaign and agenda. Biden could have asked the left to reconcile with his victory. Instead, he has signalled that he’s willing to cut deals with the left, and his coalitional approach to politics could be an opportunity for them to influence him as well. 

Put differently, he has invited the left into his coalition and is offering concrete concessions and avenues of influence in return for their participation. Biden understands that Sanders raised the expectations of an entire generation of Americans and he pushed the public to think big and demand more. And Sanders’ electrifying campaign showed that a substantial wing of American opinion is ready for his ideas. In sum, Sanders may not have captured the White House, but he may have transformed the Democratic Party. 

The big question is how far Sanders’ supporters will be ready to get on board with Biden. Sanders has made a stirring call for unity, underscoring the supreme importance of defeating Donald Trump, “the most dangerous president in modern American history.” In 2016, the vast majority of Sanders’ supporters (80 percent) moved to Hillary Clinton in the general election, but still 12 percent voted for Trump. And, perhaps, that 12 percent was decisive, considering the narrow margins in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. 

Given Sanders’ endorsement, the vast majority of his supporters seem likely to go to Biden, but there will again be defections — and, perhaps, enough to affect the outcome in some swing states. The picture is far from clear yet. 

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on March 29 shows that while 80% of Sanders supporters would vote for Biden, a sizeable 15% would vote for Trump. If in 2016, a 12% defection of Sanders’ base to Trump arguably delivered him the election, a 15% defection in the current circumstances would be a serious cause for concern for Biden. 

But then, in the 2009 election, 15% of voters who initially supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries defected to the Republican candidate John McCain in the general election and yet Obama won that election. Without doubt, Biden is going the extra league to keep this percentage of defectors as low as possible, and his overtures to maintain a positive relationship with the Sanders campaign will, therefore, impact his agenda. 

Having said that, trust Trump to extend the olive branch to Sanders’ voters as well. Trump will be keen to welcome Sanders defectors, as he trails by about six points on average nationally behind Biden in the face of a pandemic and economic downturn. The ABC/Post poll showed Biden up by just two points nationally. 

To be sure, to ensure Sanders supporters coalesce more behind him, Biden will have to make some important policy concessions in the direction of more progressive policies that Trump cannot possibly hope to match. This is where winning an endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the iconic figure of the young progressives,  will be a truly big deal for Biden. If Biden agrees to Medicare For All, the pet programme of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, it will be a huge victory for the far left. He still disfavours Medicare for All, but has promised to expand coverage of the existing program. Meanwhile, Biden is almost there with Sanders on tuition-free public college education and the Green New Deal.

Biden’s challenge is to convince Sanders’ young and more progressive allies to rally. Ocasio-Cortez said she will support Biden, but wants him to listen and hear progressives more. But the bottom line is that although Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t yet endorsed Biden, there’s no question they are fiercely wedded to the same goal — ousting Trump. As she put it, “Beating Donald Trump is a matter of life or death for our communities.”

All in all, Sanders’ endorsement falls short of a clincher for Biden’s victory. Party unity is important but not decisive. The New Yorker magazine wrote that the coronavirus crisis is laying bare the brutality of an economy organised around production for the sake of profit and not human need. Suffice it to say, all sorts of variables are at work. As things stand today, how Trump navigates his through the pandemic to “reopen America” may prove to be the crucial variable.