We’re certainly at a weird, unanticipated, and unprecedented moment in the 2020 Democratic presidential contest. Joe Biden has almost certainly clinched the nomination, but must await a host of postponed primaries or a Bernie Sanders decision to pack it in before he can begin to unite his party and prepare for the convention (if it still happens) and the general election. Meanwhile, the context of that general election has radically changed. The “electability” argument that has been so critical to Biden’s nomination campaign now depends on a different kind of comparison to Donald Trump than was the case before the coronavirus crisis swept all before it.
Whereas the formula for a Democratic victory previously involved painstakingly putting together this and that constituency, and this or that path to a majority in certain battleground states, you have to figure the pandemic — whether it still rages in the autumn or simply haunts the electorate as the most traumatic event in living memory — has changed how Americans view their leadership, what they expect from the federal government, and how they think of the very act of voting. Prefab ideology may no longer suffice; the iron partisanship of our era could relax; and freedom from fear and confidence in the future could matter as much as “enthusiasm” in determining turnout.
Meanwhile, Biden really does need to bring the primary season to an end and unite Democrats, if only because any persistent “struggle for the soul of the party,” however muted, will look irresponsible in a moment of national crisis, particularly since the GOP is in lockstep behind its leader despite his endlessly erratic ways. Yes, he can approach the Sanders constituency in a crabwise manner, accommodating himself to this or that policy proposal. But that could simply whet the appetite of progressive activists looking forward to a platform fight in (the actual or the virtual) Milwaukee.
So what can Biden do to unite his party and adapt to the ultraserious new climate? It’s time to consider forming an electoral alliance with the ultraserious party-unifying progressive who is already on his veep shortlist, Elizabeth Warren. Yes, I’m not 100 percent objective, having urged Hillary Clinton to make the same smart unity gesture in 2016, but the logic is even more compelling today.
Only Sanders and his team can decide whether placing Warren on the ticket sufficiently reflects the “ideological victory” they are already claiming for this cycle, but it can and should. And from the point of view of any party faction potentially offended by the choice of a younger veep, placing the 70-year-old Massachusetts senator in this position would not prejudice long-term party leadership. Biden-Warren would be an emergency leadership ticket for perilous times.
In such times, all the petty complaints about Warren’s “schoolmarmish” demeanor or wonkiness seem vastly less relevant than her unquestioned mastery of the federal government and the levers of power that must be utilized in this crisis. And at a time when said government is throwing hundreds of billions of dollars in the direction of corporate America, it might be handy for Democrats to hand a megaphone and a magnifying glass to a “capitalist to my bones” with a jeweler’s eye for corruption and exploitation of the vulnerable.
Yes, Warren is a woman, and some Democrats think so little of their fellow citizens that they fear a woman on the ticket will hurt them. But Biden has mooted that issue by pledging to choose some woman to be his running mate. Yes, he and the Democratic Party can speculate over his choice for months, and get down in the weeds with polls and focus groups to see which veep prospect would move a handful of crucial votes here and there on the electoral map. The most dramatic and impressive choice isn’t likely to change, however, and Uncle Joe ought to pick up the phone and call her up for a meaningful chat before another day of fear and crisis passes.