US Presidential election - another unappetising choice

by Steve Howell

When US voters go to the polls on November 3, it is an understatement to say they will face, once again, an unappetising choice for president. While Donald Trump stokes confrontation with China and uses the army to suppress domestic dissent, Democrat challenger Joe Biden has a history of being one of the party’s most conservative figures on domestic policy and a staunch supporter of regime-change wars.


So, how did the Democrats end up with Biden when Bernie Sanders was at one stage the front runner for the nomination? And where does that leave the left?

The turning point in the Democratic presidential primaries was a frenetic weekend of unprecedented manoeuvring by the party’s hierarchy at the end of February. At that point, Sanders had established a clear lead in the delegate count after primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and was ahead of Biden by more than ten points in the rolling average of national polls. The fourth primary – South Carolina on February 29 - was one the polls had been saying Biden would win comfortably. In normal circumstances, his victory there would have been seen as no more than a fillip ahead of Super Tuesday, four days later, when 15 states were due to elect a third of the Convention delegates.

However, with Sanders certain to win California and leading in the polls in Texas, the Democrat establishment was panicking at the prospect of him emerging from Super Tuesday in the lead. After interviewing 93 leading figures, the New York Times (February 27) reported that the Democrats were “willing to risk party damage to stop Sanders”. Meanwhile, the Washington Post (February 29) said: “Top Democrats are increasingly alarmed that Senator Bernie Sanders could gain unstoppable momentum from the primary voting that starts next week.” Something drastic had to be done, and Biden’s better-than-expected showing in South Carolina gave them leverage to pressurise two candidates occupying similar political ground - Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar – to drop out and endorse Biden ahead of Super Tuesday.

It’s impossible to overstate how unusual this is. Buttigieg and Klobuchar had both done unexpectedly well in the early primaries and were serious contenders. Normally candidates in their position would see how they fared on Super Tuesday and then decide whether or not to withdraw. But the situation was make-or-break for centrist Democrats, and the pair were ‘persuaded’ to do their duty. This closing of ranks against Sanders was far from enough to knock him out on Super Tuesday, but it did give Biden enough of a boost for him to win narrowly in Texas, come a strong second in California and, with wins in nine smaller states, take the lead in the overall delegate count.

Though the Sanders campaign still had the capacity to bounce back at that point, what no one had reckoned with was how quickly the Covid 19 crisis would transform the situation both in terms of the political mood and the practicalities of campaigning. In the weeks that followed Super Tuesday, rallies had to be cancelled and several primaries were postponed. At the same time, counter-intuitively, some Democrats switched from backing the Medicare For All message from Sanders, which you might expect to resonate in a pandemic, to the seemingly safe option of a former Vice President. On April 9, Sanders announced that he was suspending his campaign because he couldn’t see “a feasible path to the nomination”.


Nevertheless, the battle for the Sanders policy agenda continued. After the campaign was suspended, Sanders and Biden appointed six Unity Task Forces to find common ground on climate change, criminal justice reform, the economy, education, health care and immigration. At the same time, Sanders kept his name on the ballots in states that not yet held primaries so that he would continue to gather delegates.

The task forces have now produced a 110-page report that will serve as a starting point for the policy debate at the convention in August. When it was published in July, Sanders said: “Though the end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York socialist member of Congress who co-chaired the climate task force, said it had “accomplished a great deal” including a target for 100% clean energy of 2035 (rather than 2050 as originally proposed by Biden) and what she described as ambitious plans for investment that would create millions of good jobs.

The platform is important because it is the basis on which not only Biden but all Democratic party candidates will be contesting the elections in November. If the Democrats can expand their majority in Congress and deny the Republicans a majority in the Senate, some of the policies could well come to fruition. And there will be more of a chance of this to the extent that progressives fighting primaries to be Democrat candidates are successful.

Since suspending his campaign, Sanders has also put his weight behind a drive to build on the 2018 midterm elections when the four women known as ‘the squad’ won House seats - Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Rashida Tlaid (Michigan) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts). That effort has already scored a major success with the primary victory in June of Jamaal Bowman, who defeated the incumbent, Eliot Engel, in the Bronx Congressional district neighbouring the one held by Ocasio-Cortez. Engel, who has been in Congress since 1989 and was chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, was actively backed by Hillary Clinton and other establishment Democrats. But Bowman won a convincing 30,709 to 18,012 victory, highlighting how Sanders has energized a new generation of activists.

But the situation is far from ideal and has left key figures in the Sanders campaign divided over backing Biden. While Larry Cohen, a co-chair of OurRevolution, is urging Sanders supporters not to “run away from the lesser of two evils”; Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’s former national press secretary, says she’s “concerned we have no strategy to ratchet back the rightward creep that ‘lesser of two evils’ enables”.

Biden’s choice of running mate could be critical in mobilising the left-wing activists behind his candidacy. When OurRevolution polled supporters, two-thirds favoured Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who ran for president but dropped out after a poor showing on Super Tuesday. Though Warren disappointed the left by not endorsing Sanders at that critical point, the domestic policies of the two senators are very similar.

Trump, meanwhile, is doing his best to make Biden look attractive. His repressive reaction to the Black Lives Matter upsurge foreshadows a campaign that will play strongly to white supremacism. And, as in 2016, he can secure a majority in the electoral college, without winning the popular vote, by taking key states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. However unappetising Biden is, with the alternative being four more years of Trump, most on the left will swallow hard while investing their energy in winning Congressional battles that would advance a progressive agenda.

Steve Howell is author of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics.


Bernie Sanders campaigning in 2020