Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and the Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesJoe Raedle/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden refused to rule out a 2020 presidential run. Biden seemed worry-free, even cheeky, but what kind of future is there for his establishment brand? After all, it’s been more than a month since Hillary Clinton somehow lost a presidential election to a man with a gold elevator, and the Democratic Party is still trying to figure out exactly what that means.

Bernie Sanders thinks he knows. “Not only did we lose the White House to the least-popular candidate in perhaps the history of America, certainly in modern history,” he told Rolling Stone, “but we’ve lost the Senate, we’ve lost the House, we’ve lost two-thirds of the governors’ chairs in this country. We’ve lost 900 seats in state legislatures throughout the country in the last eight years. Maybe it might be time to reassess?”

Speaking of people who got their asses kicked by massively unpopular candidates, let’s talk more about Bernie Sanders.

Sanders is 75 years old; he’ll be 79 in 2020. That’s old – older than Trump would be at the end of a second term. But Sanders hasn’t ruled out a 2020 run (not that he should this early on), and he is now arguably the most famous face in his party’s far-left wing, fighting for those honors with Elizabeth Warren.

When Sanders talks about reassessing, he’s talking about positioning the Democratic Party further left – and running himself or someone like himself (read: Elizabeth Warren) in 2020.


What does moving left do for the Democratic Party?


Bernie Sanders sneaks a look to the left

In the eyes of someone like Sanders, Clinton’s failure in 2016 was a repudiation of a Democratic Party that was too far to the right. That may sound odd, considering that Clinton lost to a candidate who ran to the right of her, but there’s a couple things to consider here. First, voter turnout is key to winning elections – more important, in fact, than winning over swing voters (who are not the same as independents, and who are far less numerous than most of us hope or imagine). Second, to the degree that swing voters exist, they seem to be hiding in the white working class these days – a demographic that progressive populist Sanders did fairly well with. And third, Trump ran to the left of Clinton on just one issue – trade – and that issue is a populist gold mine for candidates like Sanders. Voters seem to suddenly start caring about trade every four years, and they’re always against it.

To the progressives, this suggests that the path to beating Trump in 2020 is to run someone like Bernie Sanders: someone who will fight Trump for the votes of the white working class. Elizabeth Warren will be the right age, and she has the national profile to give it a shot. Sanders himself, of course, is also a possibility.


Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment


The editorial policy here at Indelegate states that I can only use photos of Joe Biden if he’s gesticulating

Joe Biden will be 78 in 2020, just one year younger than the supposedly way-too-old Sanders. But Biden won’t rule out a run either (and, as with Sanders, it doesn’t really benefit him to do so). Many Democrats wanted him to run in 2016, and he remains a very popular figure.

This is interesting in part because so many establishment figures are drawing fire right now. Nancy Pelosi ended up in a dogfight for her old job as House Minority leader after disaffected members of her own party mounted a challenge. Clinton is being dragged through the mud after her loss, and Bernie, as we have seen above, is out here talkin’ shit about the center-left. But Biden remains relatively untouched by this anger, possibly because he’s about to ride off into the sunset – it’s worth remembering that Hillary Clinton was very popular as Secretary of State, only to become loathed again the moment she launched a new presidential campaign. Americans, it seems, tend not to waste their anger on anyone who isn’t yet trying to rule them.


A just-for-fun presidential hypothetical: Biden vs. Warren

So what happens if Biden runs in 2020? Biden would presumably run from the center-left and would represent a return to Obama-era policies. Biden endorsed Hillary Clinton when he elected not to run in 2016, and he would probably run on a very Clinton-like platform. Someone, presumably, would run to the left of him. Sanders already ran to the left of such a candidate, and Warren’s platform would probably look similar to his.

Biden probably won’t clear the field – other center-left candidates, perhaps Tim Kaine or Corey Booker, are sure to give things a shot. And Warren will be in her early 70s by the time 2020 rolls around, so this will be her big shot – she won’t step aside for Bernie.

There could be a crowded field in 2020, and with proportional delegate allocation, things could drag out for quite a while. But just for fun, let’s whittle the field down to two: Joe Biden (the top establishment candidate) and Elizabeth Warren (arguably the top progressive candidate, though I’m sure to hear it about this choice from Bernie fans on Twitter).

Aram Boghosian/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In the interest of balance, I made sure that Elizabeth Warren is gesticulating in her photo, too.

If we want to know how big this supposed schism in the Democratic Party really is, a Joe Biden-Elizabeth Warren primary battle would be the best way to find out. Biden vs. Warren would be essentially the same ideological battle that we saw in 2016, with Warren playing the part of Sanders and Biden playing the part of Clinton.

And it would, arguably, be a fairer fight. Both candidates have long resumes, and both are well known. Warren will start with higher name recognition, which would erase one progressive advantage (Sanders enjoyed the high favorability ratings typical of lesser-known candidates, but Warren likely would not, because people know her well enough to hate her) while evening the playing field in terms of experience, where Sanders clearly trailed last time around.

The gender issue – often raised by Clinton supporters and downplayed by Sanders supporters – would be the reverse of 2016, since it would be the far left fielding a female candidate and the establishment going with the white guy. And with Warren lacking Clinton’s scandals and insidery last name, the gender variable would be a little more isolated.

Who would win? I’m on record as believing that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is smaller than Sanders (and many others) believe. The central question of this hypothetical is whether Warren’s higher national profile would give her the early boost needed to battle a more centrist candidate.

Is There Really a Large “Progressive Wing” in the Democratic Party?

If you’re of the belief that Sanders would have won if he’d had more superdelegate support or a bigger budget, then Warren in 2020 seems like a no-brainer. But the flip side of this is that candidates like the 2016 version of Sanders can turn their outsiderism into a boost – it’s worth remembering that Sanders attacked superdelegates and refused to use PACs, and that this was part of his appeal. Warren represents the hypothetical Bernie-with-establishment-support, but her establishment support cuts both ways.

Warren has drawn fire for “playing the game” by not endorsing Sanders in 2016; her scandals are better-known than Sanders’ (which do exist, and would certainly be discussed if he came closer to winning in 2020 than he did in 2016); and her higher national profile suggests her favorables would be lower at the start of the race. Also, importantly, she would not be running against one of the most unpopular candidates of all time.

There’s no responsible way to handicap a pure hypothetical like this, but discussing it helps us isolate some of the same questions we had last time we talked about the progressives. Do Democrats really like socialism, or do they just hate insiders? Would Bernie have lasted as long against a candidate with decent favorables, like Biden? We don’t know yet, but we’ll know a lot more in four years.


Will 2020 be the right year for a progressive candidate?

All of the above is a good barroom argument, but it doesn’t mean we know what would happen in 2020. Four years, as the saying goes, is a lifetime in politics. Out-of-power parties sometimes develop splinter groups (like, you know, the alt-right). Maybe the progressive wing with grow during Trump’s presidency, or maybe it’s larger than I’m giving it credit for.

And a crowded field like the Dems might have in 2020 can lead to strange results, as it did with this year’s Republican primary, when a divided “establishment” vote split itself across multiple candidates while a unified fringe ran their guy to the top (the Democrats have superdelegates and proportional delegate allocation, which do provide some insurance against this – but anything is possible).

Right now, there’s still reason for skepticism when we look at the far left. The excitement over a potential Biden run suggests that Democrats still have an appetite for centrist insiders, provided they come with the right reputation and personality. But a lot can change in four years, and Sanders, Warren, and the other major far-left figures will certainly try to turn the center-left’s loss into their gain.

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