Progressives are debating what should come next for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.), whose once-promising second presidential bid has been all but snuffed out by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE.
Sanders is publicly giving the appearance of winding down his campaign after a string of blowout losses that has pushed Biden to a near-insurmountable lead in delegates.
The Vermont senator has pulled his digital campaign ads and scaled back his fundraising efforts. The coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, has effectively pulled the candidates off the campaign trail completely.
Some progressives say the time has come for Sanders to throw in the towel so the nation can focus on addressing the health crisis and so Democrats can move on to the business of defeating President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE in November.
“Politics takes on a different aura when the nation is facing possibility of millions dying from a pandemic, so the ups and downs of politics seem remarkably trivial in comparison and I think that’s taken some of the wind out of Bernie’s sails,” said Robert Reich, who served as Labor secretary under former President Clinton.
“Most people I talk with on the progressive side of the ledger, they’re of the view that it’s time to get on with this. We know Joe Biden is going to be the nominee. We’ve got to get Trump out, and there’s national emergency, so let’s move along.”
But some of Sanders’s allies see reasons for him to stay in.
The Vermont senator’s supporters believe his presence in the race will keep the left engaged between now and the Democratic convention in July, potentially delivering additional down-ballot victories for progressives.
They believe Sanders should continue to act as a liberal counterbalance for Biden, keeping him sharp heading into the general election and giving him new opportunities to win over Sanders’s supporters.
And they argue that Sanders is not attacking Biden or doing anything that would harm him ahead of his expected general election match-up with Trump.
“Sen. Sanders can run an ideas-focused and positive race, and he’s actually much better at that than he is at drawing contrasts anyway,” said Neil Sroka, a progressive strategist with Democracy for America, which has endorsed Sanders.
“That’s good for progressive power-building and might even be the best thing for Biden if he ends up as the nominee. Biden won’t have an easier time gaining the approval of Sanders’s supporters if Sanders is disengaged. And what would happen for Joe between now and the convention? He’d basically disappear. It’s good to have meaningful contests between now and then to keep him out there and to give him opportunities to win over Sanders’s supporters in a way that would be impossible if he were to leave the race tomorrow.”
There is also incentive for Sanders to stay in the race to pull Biden further to the left.
Just hours before their one-on-one debate last week, Biden announced that he supports Sanders’s plan to make public colleges and universities free for families who make less than $125,000 a year.
However, Biden remains resistant to the left’s top policy goal of implementing “Medicare for All.” The former vice president has gone so far as to say that as president he’d veto any Medicare for All bill passed by Congress.
That stance has not hurt Biden in the slightest during the primaries. For instance, exit polls in Mississippi found that nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters there support Medicare for All, but Biden won every county in the state on his way to a 65-point victory.
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Sanders is clearly feeling pressure over his future, blowing up at a reporter on Capitol Hill this week when he was asked about whether he’d stay in the race.
“I’m dealing with a f—ing global crisis,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju. “Right now, right now I’m trying to do my best to make sure that we don’t have an economic meltdown and that people don’t die. Is that enough for you to keep me busy for today?”
Sanders in recent days has repurposed his campaign to focus almost exclusively on the government response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a speech to supporters on Tuesday, as voters were casting ballots in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, Sanders didn’t even mention the elections or ask his supporters to get out and vote for him.
Instead, he used his address to lay out his health and economic plans for the virus.
The Vermont senator is pushing to empower Medicare to cover all treatments and testing for the disease, he wants to establish an agency to deal with the economic fallout for working-class voters and he proposed creating an oversight agency to ensure that corporations do not misspend the bailout money coming their way or overcharge consumers during the panic.
Sanders said he’s taking his proposals directly to Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: US showing signs of retreat in battle against COVID-19 | Regeneron begins clinical trials of potential coronavirus antibody treatment | CMS warns nursing homes against seizing residents’ stimulus checks Schumer requests briefing with White House coronavirus task force as cases rise Schumer on Trump’s tweet about 75-year-old protester: He ‘should go back to hiding in the bunker’ MORE (D-N.Y.), and progressives are watching closely to see how leadership responds, believing Sanders has banked truckloads of political capital and wondering if he can turn it into sway on Capitol Hill.
The coronavirus, liberals say, fits into Sanders’s wheelhouse, as it touches on the issues he’s raised for years about the health care system, corporate oversight and new protections for the working poor.
Among the items being debated in Congress: Paid leave, a $15 minimum wage for companies that need taxpayer assistance, government-administered health care and cash payouts to those in need.
“The economic fallout from this means that people could be far more open to radical change,” said Sroka. “Everything broke in a clear way and you’re seeing socialism emerge as a political force. I think this political generation awakening in this moment and the need for an aggressive response in a lot of ways could be a fulcrum or an acceleration on the path we’ve been on since the last financial crisis.”
But Reich argued that it’s impossible to know what lies beyond the coronavirus horizon.
He said that any progressive changes that happen now will be short-term to deal with the crisis, and that the only people with real power in Washington at the moment are Trump, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Pelosi: Georgia primary ‘disgrace’ could preview an election debacle in November MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.).
“I think Bernie has some influence, but we’re dealing in days and hours, rather than measures of time that his movement can affect,” Reich said. “When Washington is facing a crisis, the normal rules of political power don’t apply. Normally that’d be an interesting question, how much leverage does Bernie have and where are progressives on putting conditions on bailouts? But right now, it’s not terribly interesting. Congress is moving too fast for progressives or anyone to get organized or mobilized.”
Rather, some Sanders supporters are looking to the future and how the progressive movement will build on the groundwork that Sanders laid.
“Bernie’s two presidential campaigns were built on the back of three decades of movement-building, with victories and defeats along the way, and we’ve moved the policy debate exponentially in a relatively short period of time,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and Sanders supporter.
“If he is not in the White House, he will return to the Senate as perhaps the most influential Democratic member but, really more important, across the country there are now scores of seeds planted for local, state and federal campaigns, electorally and issued-based, that will sprout and feed what I truly believe is inevitable change.”