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Updated Jul 2, 2024, 6:29pm EDT
politicsNorth America

It’s a very strange time to be Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s campaign rally in the Bronx borough of New York City on June 22, 2024.
Joy Malone/Reuters
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The Scene

LA CROSSE, Wis. – Bernie Sanders arrived here on Saturday morning to talk hope into nervous Democrats.

The Biden-Trump debate was “distressing in a number of respects,” he admitted. Donald Trump was a “pathological liar,” and Democrats needed to call him out on his record. The president did “not have a good night,” but Americans weren’t voting on “who’s the best dancer, who’s the best songwriter.”

When the Vermont senator wrapped up, Eric Leitzen lifted the sign he’d made for the event: RUN BERNIE RUN.

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“It’s be a heck of a curveball to throw at Trump,” explained Leitzen, 39, a candidate for the Minnesota state House. “Look at Bernie up there! He doesn’t sound anything like [Joe] Biden sounded at that debate.”

Politically, it was an odd moment for Sanders. Biden was the moderate candidate who beat him for the 2020 nomination by winning over Democrats on electability grounds. This time, Sanders was the one making the case that Biden was both worth supporting and able to win — even as many of the same pragmatic pundits who opposed his own 2020 run were demanding the president drop out.

The president’s shaky debate performance has terrified Democrats. Some wondered how he could bounce back from an off night. Others argued that he had already started to. Some started to talk about replacing him on the ticket.

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For Sanders-style progressives, who lost the 2020 primary to Biden and grew restless over Israel’s war in Gaza, the crisis had no bottom. A portion were already on the fence about voting for him; the Wisconsin visit was about convincing them not to stay home or turn to a protest candidate. Now they were figuring out how to incorporate questions about Biden’s health and competence into their calculation.

Sanders, who shepherded some of Biden’s most popular healthcare policies through the Senate, had made the case that Biden’s domestic record was strong. in Eau Claire, he politely brushed off a Gaza ceasefire activist who asked him to rescind his endorsement. Our Revolution, the organizing group founded by Sanders after his 2016 campaign, conducted a quick member poll after the debate and found two-thirds of them demanding a new nominee. Left-leaning groups created to pressure the president on Gaza were now calling on him to quit.

“Far too many have been killed under the watchful guise of a man who cannot remember what he has and hasn’t seen, while requiring a teleprompter to form coherent sentences,” declared the Abandon Biden campaign, which until the debate had been urging voters to reject the Democratic ticket in protest of the war.

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David’s view

Forty-eight hours before the debate, Sanders and progressives were focused on a very different election — the defeat of New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman. When I planned my trip to cover Sanders in Wisconsin, the looming questions were about his part of the Democratic coalition, and how it could be motivated when, as Sanders put it, the electoral system “allows billionaire-funded super PACs to buy elections.”

The left is still wrestling with that, and it makes the Biden problem even more complicated. The party infrastructure that defeated Sanders in two primaries, and did little to rescue Bowman from his primary challenge, is now suddenly grappling with a polycrisis: A president who’s secured his party’s nomination, but is being urged to concede it, which would create an opening on the ticket that the left has no power to fill.

Sanders, who is just over a year older than Biden, was not joining the panic parade around the president’s viability. In an interview at an earlier stop of his Wisconsin tour, he said that Biden was not a “great debater” or “great speaker,” problems that a strong and message-focused campaign could overcome. Asked about his own experience with a health-focused feeding frenzy — his heart attack after a 2019 campaign stop in Las Vegas — Sanders said that “the media takes itself a little too seriously,” and that Democrats needed to go out and defend the Biden record.

“I think you can learn a lot from Trump, in that regard,” said Sanders. “Trump goes out and talks to people, a lot of people, and he keeps talking to them. That’s what we’ve got to do. We’re going all over the state, we’re getting good crowds.” He slapped his hand on a table for emphasis. “Talk. To. People. About. Issues. Relevant. To. Their. Lives. Don’t worry about the media so much.”

One way to do that, said Sanders, was to push for progressive agenda items in the party’s platform, and to speak frequently about what could be done in a second Biden term. “When you talk about, for example, expanding Medicare to cover dental and vision and hearing, the last polling I saw on that had 90% support,” he said.

Sanders has decades of experience selling the party’s more tenuous voters on incremental gains come election time. But the trickier issue to manage is still Israel, where the divide between the candidate and the left is more fundamental.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris continue to face Gaza protests nearly everywhere they go. Sanders, who opposes new unconditional aid to Israel, said that the issue was “not hard:” People could condemn the violence of Hamas while opposing a “right-wing extremist government” in Jerusalem that was “doing terrible, terrible things that we should not be financing.”

But that was not the Biden position, and the ticket was going to face protests in Chicago, and likely at party meetings, no matter what happened at the debate. If the Biden-Harris ticket remains intact, the work of turning out the 2020 coalition again got harder for every faction. The pro-Biden left will cast the election as a choice between economic and social progress and democratic backsliding; the emboldened anti-Biden left will argue that the president is too incompetent to serve again and that the usual electability arguments for ignoring their demands sound ridiculous with him as the nominee.

What if the president follows Lyndon Johnson, and withdraws from the race? The left didn’t challenge him seriously in the primary. Marianne Williamson’s progressive campaign won zero delegates, and the “Uncommitted” campaign won just 37 of them, less than 1% of the total. If there is a new ticket, it will be picked by Biden delegates and a Biden-led DNC.

“We remain open to supporting an open convention if that becomes viable,” said Abbas Alawieh, a spokesman for the Uncommitted campaign, on Saturday. “But right now, American bombs are still dropping on civilians in Gaza and Biden is the current president with the immediate power to stop this.”

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The View From Voters

Voters who showed up to hear Sanders at large and crowded events ran the gamut. All of them were devastated by how Biden had debated, but some wanted reassurance that he could win, which Sanders helped with.

“It was a disaster,” said Paige Sechrest, 33, who saw Sanders in Eau Claire. “I understand the assignment. We can’t have another four years of Trump. But the debate made me feel really, really sad about the lack of choice.”

Boris Krichevsky, a 39-year-old immigrant from Russia who had moved to the city with Secrest, said that Sanders reinforced his thinking about “oligarchy” and how the country could be saved and improved — even if it looked hopeless after Thursday.

“We need to keep up that fight, moving the needle toward the progressive positions. The arc bends toward justice, hopefully,” he said. “I want to believe that idea.”

In LaCrosse, 3rd Congressional District Democratic Party Chair William Garcia said that the debate was a “cheap and easy” story for the press. It was frustrating to him that Biden hadn’t challenged Trump effectively, leaving MAGA talking points about immigration and healthcare hanging in the air, but it wasn’t the end of the race.

“I think we’re gonna get past it,” said Garcia. “We’re going to have another debate. We’re going to hope that Biden is feeling better that day. We’re going to see Biden out in front of cameras, giving speeches, talking to people, and we’re going to show that this was a one-off, a fluke.”

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Notable

  • Elsewhere in Semafor, Joseph Zeballos-Roig talked to Sanders’s partner in the Vermont delegation, Sen. Pete Welch, who said that the Biden campaign had a lot to prove. “I really do criticize the campaign for a dismissive attitude towards people who are raising questions for discussion.”
  • In The Texas Tribune, Matthew Choi interviewed Rep. Lloyd Doggett after he became the first Democrat to urge Biden to leave the ticket. “There are many people who would like to make a statement like this but are concerned about, among other things, doing anything that might make it even more difficult for President Biden,” he said.
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