Let the Referendum on Trump and Trumpism Begin
The November election isn’t just the most important political event of 2020 in the United States. It’s the most important political event in the world.
Things always seem more inevitable after they’ve happened. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s decision to suspend his U.S. presidential campaign was no surprise to anyone who had focused on former Vice President Joe Biden’s dominance in the polls and his insurmountable delegate lead. The math—and therefore the path—wasn’t there for Sanders.
But sometimes in politics, even when there isn’t a way, there is a will, and there were plenty of Sanders supporters (and detractors) who believed he might fight all the way to the convention. In the end, Sanders’s decision, made in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and attendant economic crisis, will help the Democrats, Biden, and even Sanders himself in the coming months. Sanders’s decision offers Americans—and the world—much more clarity about the choice on the U.S. election ballot in November; in a moment that has been described by politicians, journalists, and old friends resurfacing in our inboxes as “these uncertain times,” a measure of certainty is reassuring.
Sanders’s exit allows Democrats to immediately begin to organize and communicate around making the election a referendum on President Donald Trump. Despite a recent modest bump in polls, Trump remains an unpopular president. The economic devastation brought on by the pandemic, exacerbated by Trump’s mismanagement of the U.S. response, is likely to be an albatross around the neck of his reelection campaign.Sanders’s policy positions and vision for what he called a “political revolution” inspired a devoted army of followers; a ticket led by Sanders would have asked voters to choose between an agenda for radical change that inspires some and frightens others and a president whose emotional appeals to white nationalism have drawn a cultish following from some while also repulsing others. Instead, Democrats will now mobilize to ask the country: As we face this enormous, frightening economic and public health crisis, do you want more of the chaotic, unorthodox, corrupt Trump administration, or do you want a steady and proven alternative? That is an entirely different choice.
In a similar vein, Sanders’s decision opens an opportunity for Biden to shift his focus to the general election and to make the argument to Democrats, independents, and disaffected Republicans that a key component of what he is offering is a principled, competent, and professional administration that can repair (some of) the damage wrought at home and abroad by Trump. Biden is running on his own career of almost 50 years of public service, but he’s also running as a candidate who can and will attract top talent to staff the White House and federal agencies. The administration’s bungled response to the pandemic has been a trenchant reminder of how important it is to have a functioning government. A recent video released by the Biden campaign featured Biden advisor and former White House Ebola czar Ron Klain explaining some basic facts about the coronavirus. The four-minute video was viewed over 4 million times in the first 24 hours. People yearn for the stability that a competent, fact-based, honest government can bring, and Biden’s promise to lead such an administration is both optimistic and reassuring.
The November election isn’t just the most important political event of 2020 in the United States; it’s the most important political event in the world. While those in foreign capitals are often better-versed in U.S. politics than Americans are about goings-on overseas, the mechanics of the nomination process—and the general election—can be inscrutable. (Try explaining to a European ambassador why, in a democracy, the person who won almost 3 million more votes was not elected.) Sanders’s announcement clarifies for the United States’ partners—and adversaries—that the alternative to Trump is Biden. Many of those partners around the world will welcome this news not only for the clarity it provides but also because Biden is familiar to them.They know him. They know how to work with him. They know that he is personally committed to U.S. engagement and leadership in the world and that he will work with them to tackle global challenges like pandemics and climate change. Even a strategic competitor like Chinese President Xi Jinping—with whom Biden spent a lot of time as vice president—knows that while Biden may be more knowledgeable and strategically savvy than the transactional Trump, and is certainly less easy to manipulate, he is also a straightforward interlocutor.
In a strange way, Biden’s grasp of the Democratic nomination also raises the stakes of the election for U.S. partners and allies, many of whom were shocked by Trump’s election in 2016. One of the challenges for the next president will be to rebuild relationships of trust with the United States’ closest partners. If Americans reject Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box (or, hopefully this year, by mail), the United States will still have work to do, as its partners will not easily forget the disdain with which Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and others have treated friends and allies, nor will they forget the embraces Trump has offered dictators. Things will not snap back to the way they once were. Nonetheless, if the United States elects Biden, they will treat the Trump administration as a cautionary tale but also as an aberration. If Biden wins, the Trump era will be seen by friends overseas as a disturbing populist moment; if Americans reelect Trump—choosing him over a tested and known leader—then Trumpism will be seen not as a moment but as a trajectory. The United States’ erstwhile partners will adjust their foreign policies to reflect the abdication of American leadership in international affairs.
Of course, all of the above raises the question of whether Sanders’s decision—one he acknowledged as “difficult and painful” in his address to supporters on Wednesday—was the right one for Sanders himself. Perhaps counterintuitively, by ending his campaign, Sanders has also seized an opportunity: He can now devote his energy to practical efforts to shape the government response to the coronavirus. Sanders’s policy prescriptions during his campaign were big and bold—he is a guy who works in trillions of dollars, not billions. The unprecedented $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will be followed, out of necessity, by more economic stimulus. The huge sums of government spending that have been appropriated or will be appropriated in the coming months provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Sanders, both as a senator and as a leading voice in the Democratic Party, to shape the flow of resources in a way that advances his agenda in concrete ways, instead of fighting out the remainder of what would have become a largely symbolic campaign. Sanders has already left a significant and indelible mark on major policy debates in U.S. politics; the next few months might also afford him an unusual opportunity to leave a lasting mark on policy itself.