Bernie Sanders is too Decent to be President
Updated: Jun 11
My mother has been preparing for this pandemic her entire life. Even now I’m watching her plant seeds in plastic containers filled with soil arranged in rows on the dining room table, getting ready for when she can transfer them to the backyard. She grows practically everything. She composts. She bakes her own bread.
“Did you see the video of all those people rushing to buy toilet paper at Costco?” she asks me. “Why do they need so much toilet paper? You know what you need in a disaster? Water, flour, and eggs. That’s it.”
I nod at her fully aware of the dozens of jars of tomatoes and gallons of alcohol she’s got stashed away in her closet, to say nothing of the first aid kits, the crank radio, the emergency lights, and yes, extra toilet paper.
Mom’s a survivor. She grew up under Communism so for her this is more normal than normal (shortages were part of life even on a good day). She’s stashed away enough food and booze and hand sanitizer that we could become pandemic profiteers. Which makes her house the best place to ride out the storm that is COVID-19. An emergency no one could have seen coming except that we’ve been warned it was coming for years.
Since Trump banned all travel from Europe and grudgingly admitted we may actually have a problem here, America has essentially closed up shop. School is cancelled. Sports are cancelled. Disneyland is cancelled. The stock market is in free fall. And if all of that wasn’t enough, Tom Hanks has coronavirus.
Tom fucking Hanks, national treasure.
Needing a distraction from the apocalypse I decided to rewatch the speech Bernie Sanders gave in Burlington two days ago, on March 11. Better to be depressed than stressed, I reasoned.
After getting pummeled a second time by Joe Biden on Tuesday, Bernie’s chances at victory went from tepid to absolutely grim. Consensus has it that Biden is likely to rule the roost in the remaining contests and even if he doesn’t clinch the delegate count the convention will crown him anyway. Establishment flunkies like James Carville, looking more California raisin than man these days, have been blanketing cable news, demanding Bernie withdraw immediately. So, when Bernie Sanders took the stage midday Wednesday to deliver a “campaign update,” he was under immense pressure to step aside and endorse Fightin’ Joe, so that the real battle—against the guy determined to lose reelection—could begin.
As I rewatched the 10-minute speech, taking in Bernie’s grim face, the elation of an almost certain nomination slipped from his grasp, it struck me why Bernie Sanders was losing the primary fight for a second time. Despite the fact that his policies would help the vast majority of Americans. Despite the fact that he’s demonstrated real understanding for the problems of ordinary people. Despite the fact that his ideas have broad support. I realized Bernie was simply too decent a man to be president.
The corporate media headlined the speech: “Bernie Refuses to Quit.” But if you actually watch or read the speech, you find one of the most remarkable, and honorable, and heartfelt speeches delivered by an American politician.
“Thank you all very much for being here,” Bernie says, his eyes shifting between camera and notes. “Let me begin by reiterating what I have said from Day 1 of this campaign, and that is that Donald Trump is the most dangerous president in the modern history of our country and he must be defeated.” As a punctuation he adds: “I will do everything in my power to make that happen.” And then after recapping his poor showing the previous night and the policies that he favors and that most Americans support, he makes a case for why the Democratic party would be loathe to cut him out of the conversation: he has the youth vote, Joe doesn’t.
If you look up the exit polls the divide is stark. Those below age 45 go for Bernie by 30, 40, even 50 points. Those over age 45 go for Joe by the same margins. But older Americans are coming out for Biden, while the much fabled and long prophesied youth vote, the one with the most to lose, stays home.
Yet, Bernie makes clear that if the party wants to win, they need the people that he’s consistently delivering to the polls: “Today, I say to the Democratic establishment, in order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country, and you must speak to the issues of concern to them. You cannot simply be satisfied by winning the votes of people who are older.”
“While our campaign has won the ideological debate,” Bernie states frankly, “we are losing the debate over electability.” And then he laments that while voters favor his policies, they deem Biden more electable.
The average retiree living today would have been born in the early post-war years, meaning that for many an AARP member one of the first ballots ever cast was in 1972. That just happened to be the year when the liberal senator from South Dakota—back when South Dakota had liberals—George McGovern lost to incumbent Richard Nixon. And McGovern promising, among other things, an immediate end to the war in Vietnam and a universal basic income, didn’t just lose, he was bludgeoned by a landslide Nixon victory. In fact it remains the single largest margin of victory in the Electoral College for a Republican in an American presidential election.
That’s some deep trauma.
Imagine being an idealistic 18 or 19-year-old liberal, participating in the first election since the voting age had been lowered from 21, hoping to affect real change in a corrupt war wary America, only to see your candidate get trounced by Richard Milhous Nixon on national television. It’s no wonder then that in the twilight of your years you’d think the incoherent gaffe machine who voted for the war in Iraq is the safer choice. Left means McGovern, left means loser.
The speech isn’t an easy one for Bernie to give that’s obvious. He’s been working at building a more just America for the better part of 60 years. To come this close only to have it snatched away, must be an absolute agony. So, it’s even that much more astounding what Bernie does next.
“On Sunday,” Bernie continues, “I very much look forward to the debate in Arizona with my friend, Joe Biden. And let me be very frank as to the questions that I will be asking Joe.” And from there Bernie lays out the policy positions that Biden needs to acknowledge and the problems Biden needs to address if he’s to be the unifying candidate for the Democratic nomination.
It’s one of the most decent and selfless things to ever come out of American politics. Bernie Sanders, while not entirely giving up, lays out for Joe Biden exactly what he needs to do to win over progressive voters, and to unify the party. It’s clear these are issues Bernie cares about not because they score political points but because Bernie genuinely believes them.
Medical care is a human right. Climate change is an existential threat. Higher education should be free for all. Criminal justice must be reformed. Poverty in the richest nation in the world is an abomination. The gap between rich and poor is fundamentally immoral.
You know, crazy pinko commie shit.
When Kennedy was losing to Nixon in 1960 he had the mob stuff the ballot boxes in Chicago. When LBJ ran four years later he dragged JFK’s corpse to every campaign rally. When Nixon ran four years after that he secretly torpedoed the Vietnamese peace talks and then when in power used the full force of his office to undermine the opposition so he could keep the job. Carter was probably okay, but Reagan, Bush, and Clinton all went to the gutter. George W. followed in Kennedy’s shoes and just fucking stole the damn thing.
Bernie has his faults, sure. And I’m not saying he’s not a smart and strategic politician. You don’t get to the semifinals without some game. He could still deliver a Hail Mary in the Sunday debate and somehow pull off an incredible comeback. COVID-19 remains a wildcard. But Bernie also sees the writing on the wall. He knows his time in the spotlight is waning. And he needs assurances that the interests of the progressive left and ordinary Americans don’t get swept under when Biden lunges right.
“So, let me conclude the way I began,” says Bernie. “Donald Trump must be defeated, and I will do everything in my power to make that happen. On Sunday night, in the first one-on-one debate of this campaign, the American people will have the opportunity to see which candidate is best positioned to accomplish that goal. Thank you all very much.”
He throws some meat to his supporters. He needs them with him for now. And by God, they will stick with him no matter what. But Bernie is too decent to be president. Should he be president? Yes. Could he be a good president? Yes. Would he be a good president? Probably, yes. But Bernie is too decent to be president. In that his principals and the people that support him are more important to him than doing anything he can to win.
So instead of giving a speech attacking Joe Biden’s mental acuity, or his voting record, or his history of being a bit too touchy, Bernie instead calls him a friend and gives him the recipe for party unity. Nice guys finish last and decent people, 99 times out of a hundred, don’t become president of the United States.
I know. I know. I’m probably being too naive or too idealistic. I’m biased. I’m angry. I’m delirious over the grossly mismanaged COVID-19 response. But I also do believe that Bernie Sanders is a good and decent man. And that’s why he probably won’t be president.
As I look up from my laptop, my mother—in her thick Polish accent—asks me: “What are you writing?”
“Why Bernie Sanders won’t be president,” I respond.
“He’s too old,” she says.
“That’s not why people aren’t voting for him,” I say as she places another container of soil and seeds out on the dining room table. “They think he’s too far left. They think he’s a communist.”
“People think Sanders is a communist?” asks Mom, suddenly laughing. She pauses and adds, “People are buying toilet paper.”