Robert Kennedy was murdered three years before I was born, so my practical experience with transformative progressive presidential candidates is slim. There was Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich and a whole lot of rain. In point of fact, my personal timeline arcs in a long descent into neoconservative/neoliberal hell, dotted along the way with landmark disasters like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Donald Trump, the inverted apex of this slide into ignominy.
And then Bernie Sanders popped up, and popped off, and kept going, and kept going some more, and changed the face of politics in the United States. Five years later, those policies which were deemed untenable nonsense by 2016-era establishment Democrats — Medicare for All, a real climate disruption plan, free tuition, getting money out of politics — are now overwhelmingly widespread demands that even the most conservative of Democratic candidates must answer to. See: Joe Biden.
On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders suspended his 2020 presidential campaign. He did not, emphatically, end it. “On a practical note,” he said in a heartfelt statement, “let me say I will stay on the ballot in all remaining states and continue to gather delegates. While Vice President Biden will be the nominee, we must continue working to assemble as many delegates as possible at the convention where we will exert significant influence over the party’s platform.”
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Sanders made it clear that the running sore of 2016 is bandaged good and tight, at least for him. He is supporting Joe Biden in order to end Trump’s presidency. “Together, standing united, we will go forward to defeat Donald Trump,” he said, “the most dangerous president in modern American history.”
Collecting delegates to throw weight at the convention is the kind of strategy that was bedrock common sense in January, before COVID-19 wrapped its cloak around the world. Now, no one can say if or when any upcoming primaries will actually happen, much less a convention in the traditional sense. Sanders is also staying in to help progressive candidates in down-ballot elections, like the one that just took place in Wisconsin, which may be the last vote of the season.
Bernie Sanders does not need to amass an armada of delegates to have a say in the platform. He has spent the last five years writing it, every day. His convention influence will be phenomenal, because even the most egregious Third-Way thinkers in the DNC know Sanders and his supporters will be indispensable in the coming months.
Joe Biden will be the nominee unless he dies — a rotten thing to say that needs saying, because it is the other reason Sanders is staying in, of course it is, and everybody knows it even if no one wants to say it out loud. The party platform, however, will be fundamentally influenced by Sanders and his people.
I am deeply hopeful yet sadly pessimistic that a real convention can happen. In 1964, Robert Kennedy addressed the Democratic convention, and the audience would not let him speak because they would not stop cheering. They cheered Bobby because he had lost his brother, but more than that, they cheered the ideals of “Camelot” that still seemed possible in that moment.
If circumstances allow Bernie Sanders to address the convention this year, I suspect the cheers will be just as sustained. Sanders is not about Camelot or the New Frontier of the early 1960s, and nobody is Bobby Kennedy but Bobby Kennedy, but he has injected hope, vigor and impatience for progressive change into American politics again in a way that I have never seen with my own two eyes.
Among the more maddening aspects of Sanders’s decision to suspend his 2020 presidential campaign is this: Joe Biden stands a strong and ever-growing chance of defeating Donald Trump in November because Donald Trump simply won’t shut the fuck up. Before anyone comes back with, “How is that a bad thing,” please hear me out.
Every day, news on the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the health care system and the economy grows worse — today’s unemployment report added more than 6 million people to the 10 million who have already applied — and yet every day, Trump goes out there like Kevin Bacon in Animal House with his “ALL IS WELL!” pronouncements that have no purchase on reality. Every time this happens, Trump’s numbers tick down, while Biden’s tick up.
You may have seen a few “Where is Joe?”-type headlines in the media last week, because the former vice president has spent much of his time lately running silent as a deep-diving nuclear submarine. You don’t see those headlines anymore, because the wisdom of the strategy is as obvious as Trump’s own howling public incompetence.
Biden hasn’t disappeared, of course, and the pandemic is certainly playing a featured role in his limited appearances, but ask yourself: Why send him out there if he doesn’t have to go?
Biden can spend the next eight months with his feet up, doing the occasional big-media remote interview which he will be well-prepared for. This will limit not only his unique talent for verbal self-immolation, but also leaves the public floor open to a sitting president who desperately craves it even as it slowly destroys him.
People like Donald Trump are why there’s an old saying in Chicago politics: Never get in the way of a perfectly good train wreck. Biden and his people appear to have gotten that memo.
So what’s infuriating? Simply this: Imagine if Bernie Sanders and not Joe Biden was sitting astride the nomination catbird seat at this critical moment in time. Sanders would not go silent — indeed, he won’t go silent even as his campaign is suspended because he’s a sitting senator with a big job to do. Imagine that voice out there covered by the media as the presumptive Democratic nominee, wham-splattering Trump every single time he opens his gob to spew another half-masticated cud wad on the people he purportedly leads.
I would very much like to have seen that. It didn’t happen because it didn’t happen because it didn’t happen, and the what-may-have-beens to come over the next months will be difficult to abide.
For Sanders’s most devoted supporters, I offer this meager salve: Planet Earth is approximately 4.543 billion years old. Life appeared here somewhere roundabout 3.5 billion years ago. Those numbers, for perspective, are 4,543,000,000 and 3,500,000,000. There are 365,000,000,000 days in one billion years.
Big numbers. And remember, “days” as we understand them only get counted around our own sun. A “day” in the fathomless turn of this pinwheel that stretches beyond all known sight and sound may have only just begun. Tick.
On at least one of our own “days” in this unmeasurable ocean of time, you were afforded the opportunity to cast a ballot for Bernie Sanders, to knock on doors for him, to hold his sign aloft.
Remember the bird at Bernie’s podium four years ago? Consider, now, the cosmic chances that came together to make such a thing possible. A long combination of astronomy, anthropology, biology, physics, ornithology, politics and simple beauty clockworked that moment into existence.
It is an astonishment that bends light to be here, now, within this mote in the temporal eye of all existence. Look at the stars tonight. Look, and realize how lucky you are to be part of this pinprick of time, to share it with Bernie Sanders and everything he stands for. Four and a half billion years of the planet never heard of him. You did. That is more than luck. It’s a blessing from the universe.
Cold comfort, I know. It’s what I’ve got. You’ll have to find the rest. I am certain Bernie Sanders will continue to be here to help. He always has been.