Bernie Sanders suffered the political equivalent of a near-death experience on Tuesday night. But while some might react to the shock of that encounter resolved to reform their reckless ways, Sanders appears determined to forge ahead on precisely the same course that brought him to the edge of defeat.
If any one event is responsible for the Vermont senator’s spectacular implosion across the country, it was Biden’s nearly 30-point victory in South Carolina, which gave the Democratic Party’s institutionalists the cover they needed to endorse Biden in droves, earning him 72 hours of free, positive media coverage. But there would have been no deluge of endorsements for Biden if the alternative to the former vice president wasn’t a cantankerous eccentric with an unwavering commitment to antagonizing the members of the party he seeks to lead. If Sanders could change his ways, he probably would. But it’s become quite clear in the wake of Super Tuesday’s defeats that he’s incapable of that kind of reformation.
Adorned with all the trappings of defeat on Tuesday night, Sanders assured his supporters that he would continue his crusade against the “political establishment.” And in a subdued press conference on Wednesday afternoon, he delivered. Sanders lashed out at “the venom” toward his campaign in the “corporate media.” He attacked not just Biden but his supporters, whom he denigrated as “the corporate establishment.” He added with no small measure of derision that Biden’s victory last night propelled the stock market to pare back some of the losses it has sustained amid fears over the outbreak of Coronavirus—something that is surely of some comfort to the 100 million Americans exposed to the marketplace via their 401K plans. And rather than moderate his rhetoric, he doubled down on the language of insurgency. “We are talking about a political revolution,” Sanders insisted.
This is just the sort of thing that made Biden’s resurgence possible. “Sanders has made no effort to reach out beyond his voters, his movement, his revolution,” said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in a recent interview with the Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein. Another Democratic veteran, who requested anonymity to go a bit further than Greenberg, was even more thoroughly antagonized: “It turns out that s****ing all over the party you want to win the nomination of is a bad strategy.”
It’s not just Sanders’s penchant for alienating potential allies that backfired. By his own admission, Sanders’s strategy—his very theory of the race—is being disproven before his eyes.
At that press conference, Sanders embarked on an introspective aside when he asked himself if he was satisfied with the number of young voters his campaign has turned out to the polls. “The answer is no,” he confessed. Nevertheless, he added, if you look at the states he won, like California, it’s clear that his campaign is amassing the support of most of the party’s core demographics—young people, minorities, and women.
Indeed, while Sanders won the support of a staggering number of young voters, they were a smaller proportion of the Super Tuesday electorate than they were four years ago. That should come as no surprise. The signs that the new coalition of unlikely voters Sanders’s promised to energize was not materializing were apparent well before voters went to the polls on Tuesday. In Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Sanders prevailed (or nearly prevailed) not by building a new Democratic Party from the ground up but appealing to the existing one. Sanders’s aides dismissed this inconvenient fact. Who cares if their candidate is winning? But if the narrowness of Sanders’s coalition didn’t matter when he was winning despite that fact, it surely does now that he’s losing because of it.
If anyone was expecting a course correction from the self-described democratic socialist, they’ve not been paying close attention to the senator’s career. Win or lose, rain or shine, Sanders is who he is. Even if he could moderate his personality and amend his views to appeal to a wider audience, he doesn’t seem inclined to give his political adversaries the satisfaction. Sanders’s diehard fans were probably thrilled by their candidate’s trademark recalcitrance. In all likelihood, so was Joe Biden.