If things get bad enough, maybe the downtrodden will finally rise up, maybe the forgotten will demand attention, maybe the tuned out will tune in. It’s an idea that should not persist past youth, for experience teaches anyone with open eyes that “bad enough” can always get worse.
I can’t imagine that the concept never beckoned to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during his long, often lonely career on the left wing of American politics. But his speech on the opening night of the Democratic convention was a welcome rebuff to such thinking. The would-be revolutionaries who have been drawn to his presidential campaigns seek, like Mao Zedong, a great leap forward, but the senator from Vermont offered a redolence of Confucius, instead: The journey of a thousand steps starts with Joe Biden.
“Together we must build a nation that is more equitable, more compassionate and more inclusive. I know that Joe Biden will begin that fight,” Sanders said on Monday night. Such an unexpectedly modest verb: begin. Yet Sanders infused it with dignity, acknowledging with apparent sincerity the value of partial solutions, half-measures, compromise. He acknowledged his disagreement with Biden over health-care financing, for instance, without implying that the former vice president is morally repugnant. Sanders’s speech was an invitation to his supporters to accept that gradualism in the pursuit of change is no vice.
Democrats have a long history of blowing up conventions. Their split verdict in 1860 opened the White House to Abraham Lincoln. Their cleavage in 1948 ended the party’s long lock on the South. Chicago 1968 is the urtext of modern political mayhem, and the bitterness of 1980 will endure as long as former president Jimmy Carter draws breath.
Some supporters of Hillary Clinton believe that the grousing of Sanders’s supporters in Philadelphia four years ago was egged on by the independent senator and played a role in Clinton’s eventual defeat. Sanders has never acknowledged that he could have done more to help Clinton after their bitterly contested primary battle — but he has ensured that Biden won’t be able to level the same charge.
“We need Joe Biden as our next president,” he declared, no ifs, ands or buts.
It surely helped that the Sanders speech felt relaxed and personal. The grouchy old man parodied by Larry David on “Saturday Night Live” was gone; in his place was a Vermont grandpa with a wall of firewood stacked neatly behind him, ready for winter. Rather than castigating “millionaires and billionaires,” he offered an olive branch to all, progressives, moderates “and yes . . . conservatives.” The scene would not have been possible but for the coronavirus pandemic. The cyberspace convention gave the speakers and the party unprecedented power over the look and feel of their messages; there were no angry, vanquished Sandernistas waving signs or shouting or weeping on the convention floor.
For that reason, his message will likely live on as a significant piece of the Sanders legacy. The question will arise, after covid-19 is tamed, whether to resume the rickety tradition of expensive four-day, on-site nominating conventions. Arguing in favor will be the schmoozing lobbyists and the gossipy reporters for whom the gatherings are old home week, but I’m not sure they’ll overcome this new miracle of message discipline. The virtual gathering allows a degree of control that past campaigns could only dream of. If the ratings are strong, we may never see another in-person convention.
And it also matters that Sanders had a way to frame his remarks as something other than a concession of defeat. It was a call to arms. President Trump, Sanders said, is a uniquely threatening figure; therefore, his defeat is the highest and most urgent political priority. What had seemed an ocean of difference among Democrats — between Medicare-for-all (Sanders) and Medicare-for-all-age-60-and-over (Biden) — vaporized to a puddle in the rush to battle stations.
Sanders will likely be our last major presidential candidate born before Pearl Harbor. Nearing his 79th birthday, he must have realized that this convention speech might be his last to a nationwide audience. The temptation to mount once more the barricades and repeat again the familiar lines of his lifelong agenda was no doubt great. He decided, however, that there are higher stakes in this election than the Sanders agenda, higher stakes than the future direction of the Democratic Party.
Things are bad enough already.
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