Bernie Sanders didn’t drop out of the presidential race at his Burlington, Vermont, press conference Wednesday afternoon, one day after another primary night drubbing. He did, however, do something you’re not accustomed to seeing from candidates in the heat of competition: He ran down a list of things he would ask Joe Biden during Sunday’s debate.
“Let me be very frank,” Sanders said, “as to the questions I will be asking Joe.” He went through a litany of policy-based questions about climate change, universal health care, medical debt, college tuition, student debt, mass incarceration, and campaign finance, each prefaced with some variation of “Joe, what are you going to do?” It was an abrupt pivot from the previous week of campaigning, when Sanders hammered Biden over his record on Social Security and NAFTA, presenting his campaign as irreconcilable with Biden’s. It sounded, in other words, like the beginning of Sanders’ effort to sue for peace.
The entire press conference was “very frank,” by politician standards. Sanders kept the spinning to a minimum and squarely addressed the ways he had done poorly.
“We lost in the largest state up for grabs yesterday, the state of Michigan,” he said. “We lost in Mississippi, Missouri, and Idaho.” And though he noted that he was narrowly leading in the night’s second-largest prize, Washington, he didn’t turn that into a premature declaration of victory while votes are being counted. He properly observed that Biden continues to do “very well with older Americans.” And he conceded, with some frustration, that “we are losing the debate over electability.”
“I cannot tell you,” he said, “how many people our campaign has spoken to who have said—and I quote—‘I like what your campaign stands for. I agree with what your campaign stands for. But I’m going to vote for Joe Biden, because I think Joe is the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump.’ We have heard that statement all over this country.
“Needless to say, I strongly disagree with that assertion,” Sanders said. “But that is what millions of Democrats and independents today believe.”
Sanders did, however, claim to be winning in two areas. The first, he said, was that he was winning the “ideological debate,” citing strong support for increasing the minimum wage to $15, for making public college and trade schools tuition-free, and for creating a “Medicare for All” health care system. He said he found it “amazing” that even in “conservative states like Mississippi” there is strong support for “Medicare for All,” likely referring to an exit poll result in which 60 percent of Democratic primary voters supported a government health-insurance plan in lieu of private insurance. These were the numbers in a state in which Sanders did not even meet the statewide threshold for delegates. So it goes.
In addition, Sanders said, his campaign was “winning the generational debate.” (That wasn’t necessarily the plainest way to put it: He is winning younger voters in a landslide, and Biden is winning older voters in a landslide. There are more of the latter.) It is true that younger voters are the softest spot in what’s otherwise forming into a firm Biden coalition. And Sanders’ message was that Biden cannot take the votes of his younger supporters for granted.
“Today, I say to the Democratic establishment: In order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country, and you must speak to the issues of concern to them,” Sanders said. “You cannot simply be satisfied by winning the votes of people who are older.”
This was not the tone of someone clinging to the belief that he can retake the upper hand. His account of his decision to stay in the race at least through the next debate, and the forward-looking approach he presented, sounded more like the opening of negotiations.
He was telling Joe Biden, and other leading Democratic Party figures who are getting anxious about Sanders’ continued presence in the race, that if Biden wants the support of Sanders and the majority of young Democratic voters in the near term, he has to show them something more on the policy areas he outlined, on which many younger voters feel an urgency that’s incommensurate with the proposals the Biden campaign has thus far offered. If the race is more or less over, now the onus is on Biden to determine what kind of olive branch he’s willing to extend.
It’s a complicated question for Biden. As the past couple weeks’ results have shown, he has enough supporters to win the primary comfortably, and he would rather not have to adopt too many of Sanders’ more radical proposals. He would rather not, for example, have to promise that he would sign “Medicare for All” legislation if it came to his desk—an absurd hypothetical involving a fantasy Congress that, were he to agree to it, would produce a general election liability for him. Biden would be well within his rights not to offer Sanders anything, to beat him continuously for the rest of the primary season, and to watch as Sanders—with much less leverage than he had in 2016—comes begging for table scraps before the convention.
But Sanders, without formally ceding any ground to the front-runner, was speaking the language of conciliation. This time, Sanders didn’t talk about sparking a political revolution or launching a takeover of the Democratic Party. He opened and closed his remarks by repeating a simple message: that Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous and corrupt president, and that it is essential to defeat him. If this sounded familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what his fellow presidential candidates said when they dropped out en masse and lined up behind Joe Biden. Rather than declaring his intention to overthrow the party establishment, Sanders was endorsing the establishment’s basic premise of the race—but arguing that the Democratic Party’s road to that shared goal runs through his agenda and his supporters. It was the Sanders version of being a team player, if Biden will have him on the team.