Joe Biden
Credit: Marc Nozell

Joe Biden’s dominance in the 2020 polls is surprising a lot of people. At the moment, he is beating Bernie Sanders in the Real Clear Politics national average by more than 23 points, with the rest of the field lagging even further behind.

The two explanations for why that is happening overlap a bit, but both are worth noting. First of all, conventional wisdom suggests that Democratic voters view Biden as electable, meaning that they think he has the best shot at beating Trump. Additionally, there is an emerging argument that perhaps the party hasn’t moved as far left as many people assumed. Josh Marshall writes that, “the more activist conversation that dominates Twitter seems to be operating in a different world from the actual Democratic electorate.” Jonathan Chait agrees:

The conclusion that Biden could not lead the post-Obama Democratic Party is the product of misplaced assumptions about the speed of its transformation. Yes, the party has moved left, but not nearly as far or as fast as everybody seemed to believe. Counterintuitively, House Democrats’ triumph in the midterms may have pushed their center of gravity to the right: The 40 seats Democrats gained were overwhelmingly located in moderate or Republican-leaning districts.

Biden’s apparent resurrection from relic to runaway front-runner has illustrated a chasm between perception and reality. The triumph of the left is somewhere between a movement ahead of its time and a bubble that has just popped.

Former Sanders aide Mark Longabaugh suggests that Biden’s lead puts the Vermont senator in the more comfortable position of challenging the frontrunner because, as Gabriel Debenedetti points out, he needs a fight.

It’s long been obvious to Sanders’s political advisers and allies that he does best with voters when he has an obvious Establishment foil to both rile him up and sharpen his crusader-for-a-political-revolution pitch, in the form of a “we’re under attack” message. “He’s a change candidate — his core message is he wants to take on the political Establishment and the economic Establishment.

Populist movements need a “them” to rally the troops against. For Bernie Sanders, no one in the 2020 field better represents the establishment than Joe Biden. What a primary contest between Biden and Sanders would set up is a re-match of the 2016 primary between Clinton and Sanders, which is where some people are already going. You can rest assured that the media, which loves nothing more than to resurrect old narratives, will play out the establishment vs insurgent storyline under that scenario.

Frankly, the specter of two older white men duking out a repeat of the 2016 primary campaign themes is incredibly out of touch in an era when so much change is happening and so much is at stake. On the heels of the 2018 midterms, when women and people of color brought hope for a new direction, a contest like that would be disheartening.

It’s not as if Democrats don’t have any alternatives. The next tier of candidates includes Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, and Booker—a diverse group of candidates who bring an array of progressive ideas to the table that would move the Democratic Party forward without inflaming all of the old wounds. As the frontrunner, Biden needs to be challenged by those ideas and either work with them or step aside and let someone else lead the way.

Those ideas need to be aired out in a way that doesn’t easily fall prey to the establishment vs insurgent narrative. Stated more clearly: the Democratic Party is not the opposition, but the answer to the opposition. To defeat Republicans and Donald Trump, liberals are going to need all hands on deck armed with the best ideas about how to move the country forward.

Perhaps the debates coming up in June and some of the early primaries will lead the 54 percent of Democratic voters who would support any number of the candidates to congeal around one or two who can be competitive with Biden and Sanders. A recent YouGov poll that allowed Democrats to note all of the candidates they’d be willing to support indicated that the two most likely people who could accomplish that are Harris and Warren.

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If the contest eventually winnows down to Biden, Sanders, Harris and Warren, it might break the party out of the old mode of establishment vs insurgent. Harris and Warren would bring some gender and diversity balance to the contest, while injecting an array of progressive policy choices into the discussion. All of that would be very good for the Democratic Party and the eventual nominee.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.