The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sanders is a terribly risky nominee. But so is Biden.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The stampede to Joe Biden’s side among Democrats in the wake of his victory in a single primary has been remarkable to behold. What they are unlikely to say out loud is that this isn’t about Biden’s inspiring vision or compelling personality, so much as their fears that if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were the nominee, he’d lose to President Trump. Biden, for all his weaknesses, looks like a better bet.

I can’t say for sure that they’re wrong. There are no certainties here, and no way to account for every variable that could affect the outcome of the election, let alone events that we can’t foresee.

But what we ought to realize is that both Sanders and Biden represent a huge risk to the Democrats — but for completely different reasons.

To simplify things a bit, I fear that Sanders would do everything right and fall short because he was fated to lose, while I fear that Biden would do everything wrong and blow a race he could have won.

Let’s start with Biden. His victory in South Carolina does not change the fundamental fact that he is simply terrible at running for president — even worse than in his disastrous runs in 1988 and 2008. Those who are on the campaign trail will tell you that he is showing his age — he starts sentences then can’t find his way out of them, he’s surly when challenged, and he says cringeworthy things on a daily basis. His debate performances have ranged from barely acceptable to abysmal.

So how much confidence do you have that Biden wouldn’t find a way to screw this up?

Use the Post Opinions Simulator to pick a state and see what might happen in upcoming primaries and caucuses.

It’s possible that he can win over voters in the middle who are tired of Trump and that Biden offers the reassurance of an old white guy who talks a lot about how we can all get along if we just wind the clock back four years and pretend Trump never happened. But it’s also possible, if not likely, that Biden will prove to be an uninspiring candidate of the kind Democrats have ridden to defeat so many times before, one who will lose more votes through the deadening of turnout than he’ll win by converting Republicans.

Yes, he’s getting support from African American voters — so far, anyway — but they already vote at relatively high rates, comparable to white voters. The big untapped potential for Democrats lies in young people and Latinos, neither of whom seems particularly jazzed about a Biden nomination.

Despite Biden’s insistence that he’ll beat Trump “like a drum,” it isn’t hard to imagine Trump gutting him like a fish. Republicans in Congress are already ramping their “investigation” of Hunter Biden back up, and you can bet they’ll use that story to cast a pall over Joe Biden as corrupt or just vaguely untrustworthy.

And Biden’s history on issues like criminal justice and Social Security gives Trump ample ammunition to run against him from the left, a demobilization strategy designed not to convince anyone that Trump is better on those issues but to make Democrats withdraw in disgust and decide not to vote.

And what about Sanders? He could be just as problematic a nominee.

Maya MacGuineas

counterpointThe White House is wrong. Biden is no steward of fiscal responsibility.

The first reason is the obvious one: He’s farther to the left than any nominee we’ve had in pretty much forever. There’s a good potential that his views on policy — especially when run through the ringer of an unsympathetic media and a highly motivated opposition — will come to seem dangerous, even frightening. I might be sympathetic to most (though not all) of his proposals, but there’s no denying that he proposes radical change.

Depending on what happens with the coronavirus, to many voters the status quo, particularly the economic status quo, may seem pretty good, and even if they don’t like Trump, they’ll take him over a future that they’ve come to find unsettling. You can see that in the many stories emerging about disgruntled Republicans and independents saying they’ll vote for a Democrat — unless it’s Sanders. Right now those are just anecdotes, but they could begin to pile up into something more threatening to his prospects.

Sanders says he’ll solve all these problems with an unprecedented turnout wave, particularly among those young voters. But so far there isn’t much to suggest it’s happening. Turnout in the primaries has been reasonably strong, but not unprecedented — and not all benefiting him. The fact that many politically involved young people are excited about Bernie Sanders does not necessarily mean that huge numbers of young people who aren’t politically involved will inevitably become excited about Bernie Sanders.

That’s not the only reason to be skeptical. While Sanders might not depress Democratic turnout in the way some other candidate might, his ability to bring significant numbers of new voters in — without simultaneously motivating higher turnout among Republicans that would cancel it out — is for the moment a proposition without evidence to back it up.

Up until now, general election trial heats have shown both Sanders and Biden beating Trump pretty much every time. But we should never assume that what people think of the eventual nominee now tells us much about what they’ll think of him in October, once the full power of Trump’s disinformation machine is aimed at him, not to mention a news media that is likely to repeat the “But Her Emails” debacle of 2016.

You might find one of these two stories more persuasive than the other; chances are it’s the one that matches up with the preference you already have for one or the other candidate. But the fact is that neither of the two men with the best chance of being the Democratic nominee looks like a strong general election candidate.

Sorry if that fills you with dread; that’s certainly how I feel. But it’s the truth.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Democrats actually learned from 2016

Greg Sargent: Trump’s new attack on Biden exposes his own unfitness

Dana Milbank: Bernie Sanders called AIPAC a platform for ‘bigotry.’ The group is proving his point.

The Post’s View: Super Tuesday will help determine the direction of the Democratic Party