Now that Elizabeth Warren has bowed to the inevitable, the Biden-Bernie matchup is either a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party…or the typical dust-settling of a conventional race.
That is, one establishment candidate, a veteran, battle-scarred establishment type who is not terribly exciting, and an insurgent candidate, a colorful, more ideological provocateur who makes followers swoon.
In this view, the voters who gave Joe Biden 10 Super Tuesday victories were simply coming home after flirting with two dozen potential dates. Biden was the safe, dependable choice for those whose main goal is beating President Trump—and that includes some who feel more affinity with Bernie Sanders.
Usually, this plays out over a couple of months, and the race is hardly over. But in the space of four days, Biden transformed his fortunes and, in what had seemed unthinkable, passed Sanders in the delegate count. It didn’t hurt that Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg closed ranks behind him, followed by Mike Bloomberg, or that he was lifted aloft by his first sustained burst of positive press. But the breadth of his coalition—African-Americans, working classes, suburban dwellers and older voters—suggests he was always a likely front-runner once folks were convinced he could win.
It was, as John Harris puts it in Politico, “a signal that not all the old ways of thinking about national politics are defunct in an age of disruption.”
The 2008 contest was the exception, with newcomer Obama toppling semi-incumbent Hillary. But Harris recites the history: “Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992, John Kerry in 2004, Hillary Clinton in 2016—the party has ultimately coalesced over the more consensus-oriented politician in the spring after a flirtation with more flamboyant or purely ideological insurgents.”
And that means Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Howard Dean, Bill Bradley—and Bernie last time—didn’t win.
The very factors that made Biden seem like a plodding war horse—nearly four decades in the Senate, eight as vice president, lots of political baggage—were why a majority of Democrats have so far decided that he’d be a reassuring choice as commander-in-chief.
And that brings us to why the race is now down to a 77-year-old Democrat, a 78-year-old independent and a 73-year-old president.
When Warren emerged from her Cambridge home and made some humble withdrawal comments, MSNBC reporter Ali Vitali asked: “I wonder what your message would be to the women and girls who feel like we’re left with two old white men to decide between?” (We’re left with.)
Warren replied that “one of the hardest parts of this is all those pinky promises and all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years. That’s going to be hard.”
The problem with this question is that Warren was riding a wave of favorable press and voter support when she was leading the polls last fall. Then she started making mistakes, from embracing and then fudging on Medicare for All to migrating from an unabashed progressive to a “unity” candidate.
Of course there is sexism in the press and in society. But that didn’t stop Hillary from winning the nomination and the popular vote. Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t drop out because America is wedded to male septuagenarians; they just failed to get sufficient traction.
Here’s a different view of the former Harvard law professor from Megan Garber in the Atlantic:
“Warren had something about her, apparently: something that galled the pundits and the public in a way that led to assessments of her not just as ‘strident’ and ‘shrill,’ but also as ‘condescending.’ The matter is not merely that the candidate is unlikable, these deployments of condescending imply. The matter is instead that her unlikability has a specific source, beyond bias and internalized misogyny.
“Warren knows a lot, and has accomplished a lot, and is extremely competent, condescending acknowledges, before twisting the knife: It is precisely because of those achievements that she represents a threat. Condescending attempts to rationalize an irrational prejudice…When I hear her talk, I want to slap her, even when I agree with her.”
Running for president is brutal; only one person prevails in each party. Everyone’s personality is mocked; Joe Biden is routinely portrayed as a rambling, forgetful geezer. In “SNL” terms, Kate McKinnon is Warren the know-it-all; Larry David is Bernie the ranting relative; Alec Baldwin is Trump the know-nothing.
Maybe it comes down to the fact that this was the first presidential campaign for Warren, who got into politics less than a decade ago, but the second for Sanders and the third for Biden. The former veep will need that experience, if he’s the nominee, going up against another political newcomer who has come to dominate American politics.