The Path to Unity

I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. It was the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and I was walking by Clinton supporters in the Louisiana delegation that occupied seats just off the floor, while high above them a group of Sanders delegates from the vicinity of the Colorado delegation were chanting their candidate’s name in a way that was designed to get under the skin of the Clinton delegates. This had been happening on and off all evening at what was supposed to be a celebration of Clinton’s nomination. Finally, one Louisiana delegate turned and shouted “yeah, we get it,”  in a voice large enough to compete with the speaker at the podium. 

Democrats remember moments like this, too, because there were plenty of them. With Sanders again a finalist for the nomination and again more likely than not to fall short, Democrats have to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of 2016 if they hope to win in 2020. They all agree that it is imperative to avoid the acrimony that strained their ability to come together four years ago in Philadelphia. Can they?

I believe the answer is yes, if the winning campaign understands its weaknesses and is willing to turn to its rivals to fill in the gaps. The protracted presidential contest has been volatile because no candidate has been able to make their case to the full spectrum of the electorate, and that will remain true even after a winner is crowned. The key to avoiding a replay of 2016 rests with the eventual nominee recognizing the importance of letting the ideas and perspectives of the losing campaigns continue to percolate without sacrificing the appeal that secured their victory. It requires a ticket that speaks both to the fears of those who want to avoid a second Trump term and the dreams of those who want to shape the future.

There is a population of Bernie supporters who will never support Biden (or anyone other than Bernie). You have probably met some of these voters. They tend to believe that any politician other than Bernie is bought and sold by corporate interests and they are likely to check out of the political process if the revolution does not go forward. There is also a population of Biden supporters who will never support Bernie. You may have met some of them, too. They claim to hate Trump and crave an alternative, but if that alternative is Bernie they “don’t know what they’ll do” because they just can’t support someone they think is too radical.

Now let’s assume that these two populations are elastic. Using a Biden nomination as the presumed outcome (and this is my strong presumption because of Biden’s delegate lead and polling dominance in upcoming states), we could end up with a large pool of Bernie voters who stay home or vote for a third party candidate (I’m looking at you, Tulsi Gabbard!), or a relatively small pool, depending on how they are treated by Biden and the cues they get from Bernie. The disaffected Bernie voter will be out of reach, but there is an opportunity for Biden to reach the disappointed Bernie voter who will initially say that Biden will never have their vote. The same applies, significantly, to disappointed Warren voters. Given that combined support for Sanders and Warren has reliably been four in ten Democrats, even a tiny fraction of that figure is potentially decisive.

Let’s now further assume that the prospect of a re-elected Donald Trump will not be enough to get some critical number of these voters to fall in line. If your preferences are blue-no-matter-who, this assumption may sound too irrational to accept. You may reflexively think that the prospect of four more years of Trump is so unthinkable that how could anyone not just vote for whomever the Democrats nominate?! But just because you would vote for any sentient being over Donald Trump does not mean that everyone shares your preference ordering, even if they share your party label. People have complex motivations for voting. They need to feel invested in a candidate. Outreach and understanding matter. A lot. 

Now let’s assume that Trump needs Democrats to be divided, because with a majority of the country consistently opposed to his performance his re-election prospects depend on splitting the opposition. If Biden is the nominee, Trump will attempt to demobilize progressives. In fact, he already is. A report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice documents evidence of an ongoing, sophisticated Russian social media campaign designed to exploit divisions among Democratic constituencies. This is one of the three pillars of Trump’s re-election strategy, along with suppressing the Democratic vote and demonizing his opponent to the point where voters who might defect from Trump see him as the less awful choice. 

The best way to reach disappointed Bernie and Warren voters and counteract Trump’s efforts to divide the party is to offer supporters of defeated candidates agency in the winning campaign. The most obvious way to accomplish this would be for the victor to run with the challenger he defeated, but this is rarely an easy thing to arrange. Ronald Reagan pulled it off in 1980, although it required his running mate George H.W. Bush to do backflips to distance himself from critical comments he had made about Reagan during the primaries. (Years later, Bush denied calling Reagan’s supply-side ideas “voodoo economics” even though he did). In 2020, it is hard to see Biden running with Sanders (even if it would give them the chance to run on the great slogan, “156 years of experience”).

Instead, the key to building a unity ticket rests with offering “go big” Democrats enough to make a “go back” Democrat appealing, in order to create the broad coalition that none of the individual candidates — including the eventual nominee — could do on their own. For Biden, this means reaching the critically important younger and Latinx voters who have flocked to Bernie’s campaign.

Biden is in a position to do this in a way that Hillary Clinton in 2016 was not. Clinton carried the burden of trying to make history; her election would have been the start of something entirely new. Biden is a politician in twilight who at age 78 would be the oldest newly inaugurated president in history; his election would mark the end of an era that dates back to the late twentieth century where he spent much of his political career (and where his critics will tell you he still resides). Biden can unify the party if he embraces his role as a transitional figure — if he is willing to cast himself both as a familiar throwback for comfort-seeking voters and as a bridge to the future for voters who crave progressive change. He can do it through careful attention to his messaging, his choice of a running mate, and by strategically adopting progressive ideas.

  • Public Messaging. The backdrop of the election changed dramatically two weeks ago with the emergence of coronavirus fears, compounded by the administration’s inept response and a scary market reaction. It’s not surprising that these events coincided with Biden’s rebirth, because in moments of crisis people look for capable and understanding leaders, both of which fall squarely within the Biden brand. This gives him an opportunity to pivot away from the backward-looking message that served him so poorly in the early primary states and speak instead to this harrowing moment. To the general public, his message should be that he is prepared to heal the damage of our broken country through competent and compassionate leadership — exactly what is missing from the present administration and what the public will continue to crave as the dual economic and public health crisis unfolds. 
  • Party Messaging. At the same time, to achieve party unity, Biden needs to give hope to crestfallen Sanders and Warren supporters who prioritize economic and social change over competence and compassion. This calls for a two-pronged messaging strategy, which can be built around the idea of Biden as a transitional figure. Biden’s age and his erratic performance telegraph to voters that he doesn’t plan to be around for a long time. It’s hard to picture him completing a second term at age 86, and his rationale for running — to heal the country after Donald Trump — is an urgent, immediate project. Without stating that he only plans to serve one term, he can telegraph to the progressive base that once the waters are calm his work will be done and he will depart the scene. To Bernie supporters, the message would be that it’s not a revolution denied but a revolution deferred. But to make this message work, he needs to run with someone who represents that future.  
  • Running Mate. Biden can offer himself as a transitional figure by selecting a running mate who excites disappointed Sanders and Warren supporters and by implying that he will clear a path for her in the relatively near future. He should resist advisors who would have him repeat the mistake Clinton made by choosing someone who comes from his wing of the party and whose purpose would be just to secure their home state. It would have to be someone young who looks like the emerging electorate and who is identified with progressive social justice or economic causes. To attract Bernie’s voters it would have to be someone who is not regarded as part of the corporate establishment. Fortunately for Biden, choosing to run with, say, a young, dynamic, progressive woman of color would generate electoral benefits even if he wasn’t trying to unite his party. And the symbolism is powerful: Biden claiming the torch of progress from Barack Obama and, once the American ship is back on course, passing that torch to the next generation of American leadership.
  • Ideas. Biden’s ideas are more modest than his progressive opponents but when it comes to policy there is more uniting than dividing the candidates, and even the most traditional candidates hold positions to the left of where the Democratic Party was in Obama’s time. This should give Biden the latitude to incorporate portions of the Sanders and Warren agendas into his campaign. Medicare for All and a wealth tax won’t happen, but Biden could adopt a range of policies to address the economic and social justice inequities of concern to Sanders and Warren supporters that won’t scare away general election voters. Virus fears give the campaign an opening to go bigger with health care policy, and a more aggressive approach to climate change is a must for younger voters who so far have shown no interest in Biden’s candidacy. 

Joe Biden is a flawed candidate. His flaws were on display for the better part of a year, and on painful display as he hobbled through the early primary contests, performing so poorly that in a typical cycle he would have rapidly faded into oblivion. Paradoxically, he is also a candidate with the ability to meet a moment that’s turned urgent. If he is the nominee, he can succeed by compensating for his flaws in a way that plays to his strengths by recasting his message, selecting an exciting running mate, and incorporating ideas with broad appeal to younger voters. Biden can win this election if he understands the place history has reserved for him and can leverage the advantages of being a uniquely placed transitional figure. But he cannot do it alone. He needs to build a team.