With Elizabeth Warren’s departure from the Democratic primary, it is officially a two-man race for the nomination. A two old, crotchety man race. Yes, Tulsi Gabbard is still in, but unless she pulls the biggest political upset in American history either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders will be the party’s nominee.
I don’t think either can defeat Donald Trump. I made the case against Joe Biden in January, and last month I wrote why Bernie Sanders is his own worst enemy. We are where we are, though, and while I don’t think either man can win in November, I don’t know they can’t. If they have any hope of doing it, though, both Biden and Sanders will need to do a few things that neither is comfortable with.
Let’s start with the morbid truth. If elected, Joe Biden will be 78 years old while Bernie Sanders will be 79 years old, meaning either will become the first octogenarian president during his first term. While I don’t think age disqualifies anyone from the presidency (assuming they’re over 35, as the Constitution requires), I do think that even beyond health it raises some problems.
It’s a truism that Democrats win with young, energetic candidates who inspire hope and promise change. While both Biden and Sanders are energetic, neither is young. Bernie promises change, but I don’t think he really inspires hope. Biden provides neither. This, coupled with their advanced age, means the choice of running mate is going to matter.
Of the two, it matters most to Biden. I have long lamented the fact that Democratic leadership doesn’t know when to let go of the reins of power. In 2017 I wrote an article for the Independent lamenting this fact in the race for DNC chair, pointing to two promising young candidates who were denied the chance to lead: activist Jehmu Greene and then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Nothing has changed since then, and Biden’s ascendency shows it isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Biden also lacks any sort of enthusiasm around his candidacy. I’ve yet to meet one excited Biden supporter. They might like his experience or trust him because of his association with Obama and decades spent in the House and Senate, but he hardly energizes the public. His policies are not bold and he himself—despite a compelling personal narrative no one can take from him—is bland in comparison to the diverse field of candidates we had.
So what can Joe Biden do to electrify his campaign? Biden needs someone to bring the “it” factor to his campaign, a “game changer” like Sarah Palin was meant to be for John McCain but who also isn’t dumb as a box of rocks. My preference is Pete Buttigieg, but there are plenty of young, progressive Democrats who are qualified to be Joe Biden’s Vice President—including plenty of women of color. Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris are the most mentioned, but there are others and Joe Biden should pick one of them.
Then, and this is the part that makes this a game changing moment, he should pledge to serve on term. Look, no matter how you cut it, Joe Biden is old. Those close to the former Vice President are already whispering that it is inconceivable an 81-year-old Biden would campaign for reelection. He’d be 87 by the end of his second term.
If Joe Biden selected a young running mate and then appointed a young, fresh cabinet, he could be viewed as a transition figure, someone from the old guard who finally ushered in a new era of Democratic leadership. He could also provide a stark alternative to Donald Trump, showing that his campaign is about the future of America, not just a return to the status quo of the pre-Trump years. Most importantly, though, he could make his candidacy exciting, which is the last thing it is right now.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, doesn’t have a problem with excitement. He promises radical changes from Medicare for All to free tuition at public colleges. Boldness has never been an issue for him. What he does have a problem with, though, is growing his share of the vote. Super Tuesday saw Sanders underperform, losing states he won in 2016 and coming second to Joe Biden in delegates won. Sanders’ supporters are true believers, and he can galvanize an audience better than any politician on the left, assuming they’re already converted to his cause.
It’s almost the inverse of the problem Biden has, really. Sanders’ problem is that he and his supporters are too fervent. They ostracize anyone who doesn’t agree with them 100%. They ridicule, demean, and insult opponents and even those who agree with their policies but just aren’t convinced Sanders can deliver them. They are, to put it bluntly, mean. They’re just mean. I can already imagine a Sanders supporter tweeting at me “’oh someone tweeted a rat emoji at you and was mean to you online so poor people should all die because of it.’” Rhetoric like that is Bernie Sanders’ biggest problem.
Voters want change, and Sanders offers it. The problem is they don’t want bullying and they certainly don’t want revolution—especially a socialist revolution. They just want their lives to get better. Sanders’ policies are fairly milquetoast compared to proper socialism and he is right to point out that universal healthcare is not a controversial stance in most of the Western world. He should keep pointing this out, because I think it’s an effective strategy. What he needs to stop is his relentless attacks on the dreaded “establishment”—who they are Sanders has never made clear—and tone down his bluster.
Passion is good, but there’s a thin line between zeal and fervor. Sanders needs to show he’s a capable, rational, safe pair of hands in which to place the country. If I could say anything to Bernie Sanders, it would be “stop shouting.” Stop waving your arms around. Stop with the class warfare rhetoric, because even though I completely agree with you, it’s a turn off to most voters who still wrongly believe America lives in a classless society.
Instead, explain why your policies would make life better for those living in Kenosha, or in the towns of the Pennsylvania Main Line, or in Little Havana. Explain why they’re not actually that radical at all. Do it evenly and thoughtfully. Essentially, calm down, Bernie.
“But this is a class war! But we should be irate!” I can already see the tweets coming in. That’s the other problem Bernie has. His supporters are his worst enemy. He needs to get a hold on them. After four years of Donald Trump, swing voters do not want more of the same vitriol, anger, and rancor just with leftwing politics. You’re not helping your cause. Take a breath. Is it really worth tweeting that snake emoji at the heartbroken Warren supporter? Do you really need to tell the disaffected Buttigieg voter that he’s literally killing people because he’s now supporting Biden? Even if you truly feel that way, is that the best way to dialogue with people? No. You immediately turn them off. The old adage is true—you catch more flies with hunger than vinegar, and right now Sanders supporters are nothing but piss and vinegar.
For Bernie to attract more voters, he’s going to have to tone it down and lasso his self-righteous supporters who think being mean to people online is justified in the name of the class war. It’s not, but even if it was, it’s a terrible strategy for winning an election. People want positivity, not to be told they’re part of the “establishment” because they voted for the other guy.
I hope both candidates’ advisors recognize this, because right now both are incredibly weak nominees at a time when we need the strongest possible candidate. If Biden and Sanders can do these things, they might stand a chance at beating Donald Trump. That’s what matters.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan