By Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler / Special to The Washington Post
“Last night was not a good night for our campaign,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., admitted in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. After Tuesday’s rout in Michigan, Missouri and elsewhere, his odds of winning the Democratic nomination have tumbled from probable to remote to far-fetched. It’s a dizzying fall, and it must be deeply disappointing for him and his team. But now, Sanders has a decision to make. It’s not about when to drop out of the race, but how.
Will he fan the flames of his revolution, or will he do everything in his power to defeat President Trump? He cannot do both. And his decision may determine whether Democrats gain the White House or if we will face a second Trump term.
To start, Sanders should immediately dismiss the fiction that he is losing primaries because the process is rigged against him. He repeated this nonsense on Sunday, when he used a TV interview to rail against a putative establishment plot to force Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg out of the race to consolidate the moderates. Not only is that offensive to those candidates, it’s an unhinged conspiracy theory that no serious presidential contender should consider, much less amplify.
In truth, no one in the race had more influence on the 2020 primary process than Sanders, who won substantial concessions from the Democratic National Committee after complaints about the rules last time around. Sanders is losing because in nearly all of the 25 contests thus far, he has badly underperformed his 2016 totals.
His margin in New Hampshire fell from 22 points in 2016 to a razor-thin 1 point, despite five years of constant campaigning and a massive organizational advantage. In his home state of Vermont, Sanders barely won a majority after winning 86 percent of the vote last time. And despite Sanders’ massive fundraising advantage, Joe Biden has outpaced him by more than 1 million votes.
That is not a rigged system at work; that is democracy. Biden is winning this race fair and square, and Sanders should say so. If the truth is not reason enough, here’s another: When Trump is parroting your words, you know it’s time to stop.
Next, Sanders should publicly disavow all ads or statements that use doctored, selectively edited or misleading video to inaccurately portray Biden in a poor light. In particular, Sanders should withdraw his blatantly dishonest attack saying that Biden and former House speaker Paul Ryan were somehow in cahoots to cut Social Security.
Most troubling are videos promoted by Sanders’ allies that question Biden’s “cognitive decline” due to age. It’s no secret that Biden has made some gaffes in his 2020 presidential campaign. And in his 2008 run. And in his 1988 run. Yet Biden has somehow managed to beat 25 other Democrats who sought the nomination over a full year of constant campaigning and debates.
Finally, Sanders must attempt more aggressively to calm the vitriol of his online supporters. Today’s “Bernie or Bust” sign holder must be a Biden voter by November, and only Sanders can make that happen. In recent weeks, Sanders has mumbled a few apologies for the horrid behavior of some of his supporters, but he then backtracks, saying he’s not sure that “they are necessarily part of our movement” and that he’s powerless to police the Internet anyway.
That’s political doublespeak. It’s time for Sanders to state plainly that abusive behavior — both online and in real life, by the protesters disrupting Biden rallies — humiliates their movement and hurts their cause.
In his speech from Burlington, Vermont, on Wednesday, Sanders said “Donald Trump must be defeated, and I will do everything in my power to make that happen,” and called Biden “my friend.” He can prove he means it by going beyond the support he finally gave Hillary Clinton in 2016, which was riven with bitterness and controversy.
Sanders doesn’t have to relinquish any policy positions. He doesn’t have to stop bashing Wall Street, corporate CEOs or the one percent. But there are easy and consequential measures he can take now without fear of tarnishing his revolution. Sanders alone should choose when he exits this race. But he must act now to ensure that his campaign ends with decency and with an eye on the real target: Donald Trump.
Jon Cowan is president and Jim Kessler is executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank.