vision 2020

As the Economy Weakens, the Case for Bernie Grows Stronger

Rage, rage against the dying of the Bern. Photo: Paul Sancya/AP/Shutterstock

Over the past week, Bernie Sanders’s odds of winning the Democratic primary have collapsed — even as the case for his nomination has become sturdier than ever before.

After hitting a high of nearly 70 percent following the Nevada caucuses, the Vermont senator’s odds of securing a plurality of delegates is now down to 3 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast. And the most recent batch of polls makes Nate Silver’s model look a tad generous: In Sanders’s ostensible stronghold of Michigan, Biden’s polling lead is now 24 points; in Missouri, it’s 30; in Mississippi, 50; and Florida, 49. Even in Washington state — where Sanders trounced Clinton by nearly 50 points four years ago — the latest surveys have Uncle Joe narrowly ahead.

And there’s little reason to believe that the burgeoning pandemic and cratering stock markets will bail Bernie out. In a new CNN poll of Democratic voters, Biden leads the Vermont senator on the question of which candidate would be “best to handle a major crisis” by 42 points.

All of which is a real shame, since tapping Biden to preside over our nation’s coming economic and epidemiological challenges would likely be to “let a good crisis go to waste.”

The same CNN poll that shows Democratic voters favoring Biden over Bernie by 16 points also finds blue America saying that the Vermont senator better represents their issue preferences than the former vice-president by a six-point margin, and better understands their problems by a nine-point one. Which is to say: Democratic voters appear to favor Sanders’s agenda, but fear that he will be unequal to the task of defeating Donald Trump or managing the Executive branch in a moment of crisis.

And yet, every day that the coronavirus spreads and markets tank, the (supposed) electoral risk of nominating Sanders shrinks, while the policy rewards of his election grow.

In my own view, the case for believing that Joe Biden is significantly more “electable” than Bernie Sanders has never been strong. For most of this year, the two candidates have been performing roughly as well against Trump in both public and internal polls, while boasting similar modestly negative approval ratings among the general public (Biden’s Super Tuesday victories have gifted him a surge in favorability that has him back in positive territory). Meanwhile, Sanders has proven a far more energetic and eloquent campaigner than his fellow septuagenarian, one with a more enthused and engaged activist base.

That said, there’s always been a coherent, evidence-based argument for Biden’s superior electability. Jonathan Chait laid out one version of it back in late January. Many of my colleague’s points still hold (Sanders has endorsed some unpopular positions, candidates who are perceived as “moderate” tend to win more elections than those seen as staunchly ideological). But subsequent events have rendered two foundational premises of Chait’s case obsolete. Here’s the first:

Public satisfaction with the economy is now at its highest point since the peak of the dot-com boom two decades ago. Trump has serious weaknesses of issues like health care, corruption, taxes, and the environment, and a majority of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance, but he does enjoy broad approval of his economic management. Therefore, his reelection strategy revolves around painting his opponents as radical and dangerous. You may not like me, he will argue, but my opponents are going to turn over the apple cart. A Sanders campaign seems almost designed to play directly into Trump’s message.

The second, related premise is that external conditions shaping the 2020 general election would be sufficiently unremarkable as to render the “quality” of the Democratic nominee highly salient. As Chait concedes, the same political science consensus he cites to establish the electoral hazards of ideological “extremism” also holds that the “quality of a candidate is not the only, or even the main, determinate of election outcomes,” with background economic conditions being far more decisive. Polarization has already eroded the relevance of candidate selection, as virtually all self-identified Democrats and Republicans will vote for their standard-bearer each year, no matter their identity. Nonpartisan voters, meanwhile, tend to reward or punish the incumbent party on the basis of the economy’s election year performance.

And Donald Trump’s election year economy is a Looney Toons character that’s just run full-tilt off the edge of a cliff — and is just now looking down. The bond market has turned gloomy as a Lars Von Trier film. The S&P 500 is singing Tom Petty’s greatest hit. Meanwhile, the president’s “management” of the coronavirus crisis has been so nakedly inept and sociopathic, arch-conservative bloggers are declaring Trump a “public health menace.”

To be sure, things can change between now and November. But there’s little reason to believe the cornavirus’s economic impact will prove a seasonal malady. The pandemic is already pushing fragile banking systems to the breaking point, popping asset bubbles, and kicking off an oil price-war that threatens the viability of one of America’s premier industries. The U.S. economy may be in a better place come November than it will be April; but it’s highly unlikely to be in as strong of a condition as it was last month. Which is to say: Democrats entered 2020 needing to beat an incumbent who was presiding over an exceptionally favorable economy, a challenge that gave the party little margin for error. Now, they will most likely be facing a historically unpopular, discredited incumbent presiding over a troubled economy. Thus, even if we stipulate the tendentious premise that Joe Biden’s is marginally more electable than Sanders, this consideration has never been less relevant than it is now.

One unstated premise of Chait’s case against Sanders was that the senator’s nomination would be all political risk and no substantive reward, even from the perspective of his socialist supporters. After all, the bounds of legislative possibility in 2021 will be set (in the best case scenario) by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, not Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. And on most domestic issues, the former vice president’s stated position is to the left of the median Democratic senator’s. Thus, to the extent that Biden’s superior electability lifts the fortunes of down-ballot Democrats, his nomination doesn’t just maximize the party’s odds of winning the White House but also the progressivity of its governing agenda, since the latter is determined primarily by the balance of power in the Senate.

This view isn’t unreasonable. But it has always rested on a tendentious dismissal of the importance of the president’s unilateral authority over foreign policy, the Executive branch’s myriad areas of regulatory and administrative discretion, and the way unexpected electoral outcomes reshape “moderate” politicians’ worldviews and incentives (a world in which a socialist has successfully defeated an incumbent Republican is one in which the congressional Democratic opportunists will be more than leftwing than they are now). Regardless, appeals to the practical irrelevance of ideological distinctions between Biden and Sanders are much less compelling in the present context.

Economic crises and historic epidemics remake political reality. A wide range of powerful U.S. industrial interests — including prime adversaries of contemporary progressivism like oil and gas — may soon come to Washington, hat in hand. Former Trump administration economic adviser Gary Cohn is already calling for an airline industry bailout. How long the U.S. government’s present leverage over wide swathes of corporate America will last is unclear. But it’s quite plausible that American capital will still be in a fragile, humbled state on January 20, 2020. In which case, the next Democratic president’s ideological posture toward Wall Street could have profound and lasting policy consequences. After all, it was the Great Depression that birthed modern American liberalism, and the stagflation crisis that seeded the Reagan counterrevolution. For a few months, the 2008 crash appeared to offer a similar opportunity for ideological realignment; as of February 2009, Lindsey Graham and Alan Greenspan were both calling on the Obama administration to consider temporarily nationalizing major banks. Barack Obama’s instinctual institutionalism was far from the only barrier to radical economic reform in 2009. But it’s hard to not to suspect that — had Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren been at the wheel in that moment– the White House would have done more to aid underwater borrowers, and exploit Wall Street’s financial and ideological weakness.

And it is hard to believe that — if Joe Biden enters the Oval Office next year with Corporate America still on its back — that the former “Senator from MBNA” will exploit the opportunity to its fullest. Especially when some of his top advisers are reportedly pushing for him to let J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon or Bank of America vice chairman Anne Finucane lead the Treasury department, and Michael Bloomberg command the World Bank.

Further, to the extent recessionary conditions seed a bipartisan (or at least, pan-Democratic) demand for stimulus, Sanders’s greater interest in enormous green investments — and lesser inhibitions with regard to deficit spending – could bring the U.S. closer to a rational fiscal policy. As of this writing, the United States can take out 30-year loans at an interest rate below one percent; which is to say, frightened global investors are begging to supply our government with nearly cost-free capital. In the face of near-zero borrowing costs — and an ever-deepening ecological crisis — fiscal profligacy and fiscal responsibility are two names for the same thing. Although Sanders often affirms folk wisdom about deficits in his public statements, he also boasts some ties to the Modern Monetary Theory movement, and none to Washington’s high priests of austerity economics. Biden, meanwhile, has sung in the latter’s choir for long stretches of his career. All else equal, a Sanders administration would likely get a larger green stimulus through Congress than a Biden one would.

Finally, although the legislative obstacles to Medicare For All are almost certain to remain prohibitive no matter what transpires over the next ten months, the idea that universal health care is a public good — and that every American (who does not currently reap huge rents from an extractive health-care industry) has an enlightened self-interest in universal coverage — becomes a bit more hegemonic with each new coronavirus diagnosis. Last week, far-right GOP congressman Ted Yoho said of providing free coronavirus testing and treatment to the uninsured, “ You can look at it as socialized medicine. But in the face of an outbreak, a pandemic, what’s your options?” Meanwhile, the Trump administration is reportedly considering tapping national-disaster funds to compensate hospitals and doctors who provide care to uninsured coronavirus patients free of charge, and taking measures to subsidize the incomes of workers who lack paid leave. In this context, Medicare For All would seem to be an easier sell on the campaign trail than it has been.

All of this may prove immaterial to the Sanders campaign’s fortunes, which now appear to hinge on whether Biden can make it through the next couple weeks without making a gaffe of unprecedented severity, or contracting a serious illness. But if you are one of the few people with the power to make the newly robust case for a Sanders nomination matter — which is to say, if you are a registered Democrat in an upcoming primary state who favors the Vermont senator on the merits but has heretofore feared for his electability — do vote your conscience in that ballot booth. It’s the pragmatic thing to do.

As the Economy Weakens, the Case for Bernie Grows Stronger