On Sunday, Joe Biden posted a message on Twitter encouraging people to get out and vote in the upcoming primaries next week. “If you are feeling healthy, not showing symptoms, and not at risk of being exposed to COVID-19: please vote on Tuesday,” he urged.
He was rightly eviscerated, as it was public health misinformation: Everyone is at risk, and people without symptoms may still be contagious. It was a deeply irresponsible thing to post. But the criticism raises an uncomfortable set of questions. If it’s a risk to public health to vote in public, and states are refusing to get serious about mail-in voting, is it irresponsible to vote? Should the primaries be canceled?
Those questions may sound extreme today, but within just a few weeks, the answer may be an obvious yes. To avoid a scenario in which President Donald Trump uses the pandemic to his advantage, while risking the lives of millions of Americans, the Biden and Bernie Sanders campaigns could broker a split ticket of Biden-Sanders with a clear, publicly announced, historically powerful role for Elizabeth Warren — presumably secretary of the treasury. Such an arrangement would be infuriating to vast numbers of people in all three camps. It would anger the authors of this very article.
It is abundantly clear that the Trump administration cannot be trusted to handle the coronavirus pandemic. Its lies and incompetence are already responsible for endangering countless lives. That this pandemic is hitting in the midst of voting in the Democratic presidential primary is concerning on multiple levels, among them the risk to individual voters who need to physically go to places of large congregation and potentially stand in line for hours. This scenario then opens up a broader risk of spread, including through asymptomatic carriers who believe that, because they are not exhibiting symptoms, it is safe for them to go to such gatherings. The Democratic National Committee is going to be facing some gravely serious decisions on how to proceed and whether to even hold a convention.
Many of Joe Biden’s supporters believe that Biden already has the nomination sewn up, and some have suggested that Bernie Sanders should drop out of the race. Sanders, who has run for five years on the central issue of Medicare for All and radically addressing the climate crisis, clearly believes that the coronavirus pandemic is a powerful illustration of why we need radical change in order to protect public health and the planet. With most delegates remaining to be won, the vast numbers of voters who have not yet cast their ballots deserve to be counted. The DNC has already been roundly criticized by Sanders and his supporters for how it handled the 2016 primary and, to an extent, the way it has governed the 2020 process. If the DNC were to take action to cancel the primaries and crown Biden with most states’ voters disenfranchised, it would shatter the party’s credibility and give concrete justification to voters who believe their votes were stolen by the DNC to do any number of things in November, including not voting for the Democratic nominee.
If the DNC were to take action to cancel the primaries and crown Biden with most states’ voters disenfranchised, it would shatter the party’s credibility.
There are some obviously terrible dimensions to this plan. The idea of two old, straight, white men on the ticket is absurd (as is the idea of two old — if not quite as old — straight, white men floating it). Many supporters of both Sanders and Biden have been pushing for the vice presidential slot to be filled by a person who is not an elderly, straight, white man.
But perhaps the unprecedented moment we are living in requires us to think differently: Biden represents a large coalition within the Democratic Party base, has wide support from the African American community, and appeals to some traditional Republicans. Bernie Sanders represents a young, diverse coalition of voters inside and outside the Democratic Party; he is powered by real social movements, and has a large base of support among Latino voters, the fastest growing segment of the U.S. electorate. He would also be the first Jewish vice president. Neither Biden’s campaign, nor Sanders’s, is simply about these men. It is about the people and institutions their platforms represent.
From Sanders’s perspective, he is at a moment of maximum leverage, but realistically has little path to the nomination. Many Sanders supporters have expressed concerns about Biden’s clear cognitive decline. The reality is that despite those concerns, many Democratic voters have made clear they want him as the nominee. If Biden continues to win primaries, he’s the nominee. If Sanders starts to upset Biden in low-turnout primaries, the party leadership will almost assuredly cry foul and move to invalidate the primaries; Sanders would lose even if he wins. And along the way, the curve of the pandemic would be ratcheted ever steeper, potentially adding hundreds of thousands to the death toll, if not more.
To make it work, this could not simply be a symbolic offering of the vice presidential nomination in an effort to placate Sanders supporters. There would need to be an agreement more akin to a parliamentary power sharing agreement among Biden, Sanders, and Warren. Biden simply pledging to adopt some of Sanders’s and Warren’s plans carries far less weight. At a minimum, Sanders’s plans on health care, the climate crisis, workers rights, immigration, and criminal justice ought to be accepted as the official platform of the ticket. Already, public opinion is swinging wildly toward a stronger government role in funding health care, guaranteeing sick leave, and broadly creating a more safe and secure society. It is encouraging that Biden recently stated that he was adopting Warren’s financial plan, however serious that support may be; Warren could play a central role in the brokering process. It is clear from the states that have voted and many national polls that Biden choosing Warren as his running mate would not have the same impact as choosing Sanders, given the overlapping coalitions of Warren and Biden. None of this makes it right, but it is empirically evident.
For Sanders to sacrifice the possibility of the nomination for the sake of public health would be a portrait of leadership in stark contrast to the current occupant of the White House.
It has become clear that many of Sanders’s supporters believe that, as events have evolved since Super Tuesday, Sanders has a real chance at doing what most analysts believe is impossible: winning the nomination outright. That may well be true, but it seems unlikely. Progressives in the U.S. have not held this type of influence in an electoral campaign since Henry Wallace, one of the most left-wing members of the cabinet, was named Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president for the 1940 election. In 1944, with Roosevelt in declining health, party leaders managed to shunt Wallace aside for Harry Truman, expecting (correctly) that whoever became vice president would rise to president. (Truman later fired Wallace for being a pacifist.)
Impolite as it may be to say, the prospect of Biden, Sanders, and Trump, all in their 70s, campaigning for the next seven months, is a major roll of the dice. They are all in the high-risk category, and Trump appears unwilling to take even the most basic precautions. Nobody is safe from the virus entirely, but that reality doesn’t mean Biden and Sanders can’t run together. It means they should work to stay safe, and if they don’t, the party will need a new alternative. For Sanders to sacrifice the possibility, however remote, of the nomination for the sake of public health would be a portrait of leadership in stark contrast to the narcissistic negligence on display from the current occupant of the White House.
For Sanders supporters, entering a coalition with Biden would be a viciously bitter pill to swallow. In the absence of the novel coronavirus crisis and the nature of the current president, we have a hard time imagining this proposal ourselves. But the reality is that Trump has to go. The reality is that millions of people in this country are in dire condition, long before this virus hit us. The reality is that we cannot risk public health by forcing people to stand in lines waiting to vote. The passionate debates about the nature and future of the Democratic Party will not go away any time soon. It is, in fact, in its own crisis. But a Biden-Sanders administration would provide for a much safer environment to have this fight.
This article represents the views of the authors and not those of The Intercept.