There were plenty of circumstances in which one could picture the defeat of Bernie Sanders. It is safe to say that none involved a situation where Congress just quadrupled the US fiscal deficit and prominent Republicans were flirting with universal basic income. It is an irony — and a bitter one for the Sanders movement — that his presidential candidacy folded at just the moment big government was coming back into demand.
Ronald Reagan famously said “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” were the nine most dangerous words in the English language. Covid-19 has taught Americans that nothing is more worrying during a crisis than government’s absence.
Yet, it was the coronavirus that dealt the final blow to his hopes. Joe Biden had gathered a near-insurmountable lead in the Democratic primary race before most of the US went into lockdown last month. But he faced months of bitter contest with the Sanders movement before the crown would be his. The wave of “shelter-in-place” orders suddenly made campaigning irrelevant.
On Tuesday Wisconsin bucked the trend and went to the polls. Many of the voters were Sanders supporters standing in queues for hours at unsafe distances from each other. This made it clear that the defining feature of Mr Sanders’ campaign — mass rallies — was not coming back. For the foreseeable future politics will consist of Mr Biden “homecasting” from Delaware, and Donald Trump dominating the airwaves with his coronavirus briefings.
Election 2020 will have many of the features of a zombie campaign. But Mr Sanders has altered its substance. His key legacy has been to shift the Democratic party to the left. Mr Biden is considerably more populist on economics than at any point in his career, including as US vice-president to Barack Obama.
As he conceded on Medium minutes after Mr Sanders had suspended his campaign: “Issues which had been given little attention — or little hope of ever passing — are now at the centre of the political debate. Income inequality, universal healthcare, climate change, free college, relieving students from the crushing debt of student loans. These are just a few of the issues Bernie and his supporters have given life to.” Ironically, Mr Sanders has also given life to the Biden campaign, which can now stop looking over its shoulder.
One of his first big decisions will be to pick a running mate. It is a measure of Mr Sanders’ influence that few doubt his likely pick will be female, non-white and from the left of the Democratic party. A centrist is highly unlikely. Names such as Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, and Val Demings, the congresswoman from Florida, have been aired. Kamala Harris, the former presidential candidate has also been touted, although her centrist tilt on economics may prove a weakness. Ms Abrams, in particular, could strike a chord given the Democratic focus on protecting the voter franchise. Mr Trump has made it clear he opposes attempts to make mail-in balloting easier. Ms Abrams would almost certainly be Georgia’s governor today if the state had not purged many non-white voters from its rolls.
Mr Biden’s continual challenge will be to break through the pandemic fog to be heard. Mr Trump has a daily captive audience that can last for longer than two hours. There is no way of telling at what pace politics will creep back to normal. The Democratic National Committee has already had to push back its convention from July to August. The latter may come into question if there are any concerns — as there are bound to be — about the risk of a second wave of infections once the peak is reached. No one has ever staged a virtual convention.
The election will ultimately be a referendum on Mr Trump’s handling of the epidemic. A few weeks ago Mr Trump was planning to run on the strength of the US economy. Amid the sharpest contraction since the Great Depression, that is no longer on the cards. But he will be sorely tempted to push Americans back to work earlier than scientists advise.
It will be Mr Biden’s job to highlight the president’s negligence. By dropping out sooner than expected, Mr Sanders has done him a big favour. In the end, as someone quipped on Twitter, Mr Sanders’ revolution was not televised. It did not even appear on Zoom. But his withdrawal makes Mr Trump’s defeat more likely, which would be a revolution of sorts.