Sydney Ember of the New York Times seems somewhere between miffed and mystified that everyone is racing to endorse Joe Biden and that they’re getting praised for it. In particular, she seems almost incensed that folks are lining up to say nice things about Bernie Sanders, when they spent a year or more trashing him: “Never mind that Mr. Biden had spent part of the Democratic primary race accusing Mr. Sanders of disloyalty for considering a primary challenge against Mr. Obama in 2012.”
She’s also undecided about what it all means. On the one hand, she says “Mr. Sanders is in the uniquely awkward position of being venerated by a party he has never joined…” And, then, on the other hand, she argues both the prior criticism and the current praise of Sanders are nothing but a show that calls “into question whether political messages are simply a form of competitive posturing.” Maybe no one actually believed all those nasty things they said about Bernie, or perhaps they’ve instantly concluded it was all hyperbole: “Mr. Sanders is joining a long line of losing candidates who seemed more palatable to onetime critics in hindsight… Democrats also looked fondly back at Senators John McCain, of Arizona, and Mitt Romney, of Utah, as pre-Trump Republicans who were actually never that bad.”
They say that one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is that you lose your senses of taste and smell. Fortunately, the only sense I seem to have lost is for what’s truly important enough to write about during our current global crisis. Sometimes it seems like virtually nothing meets that test. But I know that pandemic itself meets it, which is why I am astonished that Ms. Ember managed to write this entire piece about rivals coalescing behind Biden without once mentioning the viral outbreak that has already cost tens of thousands of Americans their lives.
She’s correct that the Democratic Establishment exhaled in relief when Sanders ended his campaign and quickly endorsed Biden. But it’s not only “a projection of how desperate Democrats are to beat Mr. Trump.” It’s more than just the post-traumatic hangover from 2016, when Sanders hung on too long and did too much damage to Hillary Clinton. It’s a recognition that these are no ordinary times and that we need to get focused on fixing the country’s many problems rather than bickering among ourselves.
The pandemic is the central explanation for why Bernie Sanders ended his campaign when he did. Knowing he was defeated didn’t force him out in 2016, and he was initially inclined to again gather as many convention delegates as he could in a bid to affect the party platform. He changed his mind because there were many more levels of resistance to him continuing this time around. He changed his mind because social distancing rules made it impossible for him to hold rallies or get his message out. He changed his mind because Joe Biden offered him something that Clinton didn’t, which is a bunch of working groups to work on the platform prior to the convention. This was gracious, but also a recognition that the convention may not be held in physical space but rather, much like the upcoming NFL Draft, only in the online world.
You can’t understand or intelligently discuss Sanders’ behavior without putting COVID-19 front and center. To a lesser degree, the same can be said for the decision-making of Elizabeth Warren. This can be seen even in the area of health care. That’s the issue, more than any other, where principles and ideals argued for a continuation of the debate straight through the convention. But now that we’re seeing our medical system stagger under the magnitude of the crisis, it’s less about knowing that Sanders and Warren had a point than realizing that Biden will have the space and incentive and even the obligation to go bigger than he initially intended.
The crisis is not only the reason why Sanders dropped out, It’s the reason the Establishment is so willing to let bygones be bygones. There’s nothing phony about it. It’s just people treating the times with the urgency they demand.