I didn’t want to have to write this post.
That’s why I’ve been putting it off. There was a case for writing it after Super Tuesday, but I thought, Wait until there are a few two-person contests. There was a better case for writing it after March 10th, but I thought, Wait until there’s been a two-person debate and some voting after that. Then there was an ever better case for writing it after March 17, but there were also signs that the right thing might happen shortly, so I thought, Just wait. But now that he’s made it clear he intends to contest the New York primary, currently scheduled for April 28, the time has come to say: Bernie Sanders needs to suspend his campaign for president.
I understand that that’s a hard thing for Sanders, and his supporters, to accept. It’s always painful to deal with the failure of your preferred candidate and the success of someone you consider deeply inferior, and in a case like this, with a candidate who is plainly not going to run again and who has no obvious political heir, it’s an especially bitter pill. I get that many Sanders backers feel like a Biden candidacy will produce a rerun of 2016 and would do anything they can to avoid that. To have seen Sanders’ insurgent candidacy seem on the verge of victory and then collapse, in not one but two successive primaries, must be heartbreaking. But part of leadership is making difficult, self-sacrificing decisions when the situation requires it, and this primary, more than any in recent American history, is that kind of situation.
It’s not just the usual problem, that extending the primary inevitably creates bitterness that we’ll all have to get over when it comes time to turn our attention to the general election, although with the stakes as high as they are that would be reason enough. It’s also that continuing to contest the primary will inevitably drive up turnout in the remaining states, and in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that’s a very bad thing. Citizens in states that have yet to vote should be pushing their legislatures to institute or expand voting by mail, but no matter what there’s going to be plenty of in-person voting, and it’s in the public interest to reduce crowding at polling places by not encouraging people to go out and cast votes for a lost cause. Sanders supporters attacked Biden, reasonably enough, for sending out a tweet encouraging healthy people to go the polls on March 17th, but at this point the very existence of the Sanders campaign is that tweet, times 1,000.
I’m aware that some Sanders supporters, including those with influence on the campaign, see the coronavirus pandemic as a reason for him to stay in rather than get out. They think that this national crisis demonstrates the need for the kind of sweeping healthcare and economic reforms that Sanders supports, and that Joe Biden has not done enough to provide leadership. This points to a fundamental weakness of a campaign shaped by passionate ideologues: the habit of getting high on your own supply. People not already presupposed to these ideas just don’t want to hear them right now. There may be a case that the reforms Sanders proposes would have prevented the present crisis, but when your house is burning down, you don’t want a finger-waving explanation of how it happened because the house was shoddily constructed; you want someone to put out the fucking fire. And Sanders, who unlike Biden has a current role in the federal government, was not in Washington this weekend to help negotiate the stimulus, but in Vermont, campaigning via livestream. I understand that some people see this “organizer-in-chief” approach as the right one, but to think that it’s going to help him overcome a 20-point deficit in the polls is to delude yourself.
And Sanders doesn’t just need to take the lead in the polls; he needs an overwhelming lead, on about the scale of the one Biden currently has. At this point, the kinds of scenario where he becomes the Democratic nominee (a) are ghoulish and (b) don’t require him to keep his campaign going right now. Nor is there an argument that he’ll somehow gain influence over the convention and the platform by continuing to fall behind in the delegate count. The die-hard Sanders devotees who are spreading absurd rumors about Biden having dementia or being dead are, in a sense, more in touch with reality than his more conventional supporters; the devotees, at least, understand what it would take to turn this thing around for him.
Bernie Sanders has a key role to play in the general election campaign, and in shaping the Biden administration if there is one. And he has vital work to do in continuing to influence the next generation of Democratic politicians, so that he won’t be the lone voice he often seems like now. What he doesn’t have is a meaningful chance of ever being president himself. The more he denies that, the more he feeds the caricature of himself, and of other committed leftists, as stubborn, selfish, and detached from reality… and the more he runs the risk of turning his supporters’ conviction that a Biden nomination means a Trump victory into a self-fulfilling prophecy.