The withdrawal of Bernie Sanders from the U.S. presidential campaign – inconceivable after strong showings in early caucus and primary states, all but inevitable after a series of devastating losses later – ended a remarkable, unprecedented phenomenon in American politics: his emergence as a serious candidate for the nomination of a party he didn’t even belong to and his movement to front-runner status in the world’s leading capitalist country as a proud, self-described socialist.
Mr. Sanders’s position as the Democrats’ presidential front-runner in his second campaign for the White House turned out to be less a major winter storm than a passing February squall. The support for former vice-president Joe Biden emerged in South Carolina, hardened on Super Tuesday, and took firm and, it turned out, final form as the weeks wore on.
With a commanding performance in March 11 contests in the first one-on-one confrontation of the 2020 campaign, the former vice-president delivered a knockout punch to Mr. Sanders, whose vote harvest was so meagre and whose challenges seemed so insurmountable that the Vermont Senator did not even appear in public until the next day.
His prospects shrank even further when the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold in North America, forcing the struggle for the Democratic presidential race off the front pages, the top minutes of television news broadcasts and the trending messages on Twitter. As the virus spread, Mr. Sanders sought to revive his flagging campaign by transforming his insurgency into a crusade for universal health coverage, arguing the pandemic, which struck largely without discriminating between rich and poor, underlined the need for health coverage for all.
Indeed, in an opinion column he published in the Guardian that appeared the very day he departed the race, Mr. Sanders advocated a plan “to pay all of the deductibles, co-payments and out-of-pocket health-care expenses for the uninsured and the underinsured,’’ adding, “No one in America who is sick, regardless of immigration status, should be afraid to seek the medical treatment they need.’’
By leaving the race hours later, Mr. Sanders acknowledged there was no reason to continue “a campaign that cannot win and which would interfere in the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour.”
But he revealed his decision weeks after it was clear he was running a campaign he could not win – a reflection of his reluctance to depart from what, at 78, was his last chance for the White House.
From the start, Mr. Sanders was a bundle of improbables.
He was, according to American conventions, too old, too left-wing, too Jewish, too stubborn, too inflexible, too sardonic, too self-righteous and too unpleasant to win the presidency. Any one of those qualities – apart from the unpleasantness, which characterized Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and on some occasions Jimmy Carter – was enough virtually to disqualify others from the White House.
And yet, Mr. Sanders twice finished second in the Democratic nomination race and, in the most recent case, threatened to finish first with all those disqualifiers.
But that was the least of his victories in defeat.
Many of his views – on free college tuition, on health care, on the legalization of marijuana – were considered fringe ideas, care-free fantasies of a socialist who was elected from the margins of the United States in faraway Vermont, who drank deeply from the obscure ponderings of academic monographs, and who ingested notions propagated in small-circulation left-wing journals.
Mr. Biden will run on some of the Sanders ideas. The platform to emerge from whatever form the Democrats’ national convention takes this summer will bear more resemblance to the proposals Mr. Sanders, standing alone in the Senate, advocated at the turn of the century than the ones Mr. Biden, from the middle of the Capitol Hill crowd, did in the same period.
Mr. Sanders’s withdrawal means Mr. Biden has a clear route to the nomination and an autumn confrontation with President Donald Trump. His departure means that, despite many Democrats’ sympathy for Mr. Sanders’s views, they will realize their most fervent desire: a general election nominee with mainstream views that can appeal to Americans skeptical of the personal style and comportment of the President.
Mr. Biden, born in Pennsylvania, is particularly well-suited to win the support of female voters, for example, in the suburban counties around Philadelphia, a group vital to the Democrats’ prospects in a state that voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but is considered as perhaps the prime battleground in 2020.
And yet, Mr. Sanders departs national politics with a kind of moral triumph, as the rarest of specimens in the American political bestiary: a figure who changed politics more than politics changed him. Few politicians of his generation, or of any other, can claim that legacy.
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