The Bernie Sanders revolution is winding down.
After three weeks’ of thumping in Democratic primary elections, Sanders is poised to drop out of the race. The Vermont senator would have to win 70% of the vote in remaining elections to overtake former Vice President Joe Biden—and he’s been winning far less than 30%. With the coronavirus outbreak metastasizing, dropping out has become an ethical imperative that will turn upcoming Democratic primaries into formalities, allowing more people to stay home and reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
So barring a catastrophe, Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee running against President Trump in the general election that essentially begins now. Yet Sanders has had an indelible impact on the Democratic Party that could resonate for years. He pushed radical ideas like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal which may never get enacted in the form Sanders prefers but have changed the way Democrats and many voters in general think about what the government should and can do.
Biden now leans more to the left than he did as a senator, and as President Obama’s vice president. After the Obama administration got the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in 2010, it basically pulled back from any further reforms to the way Americans get health care. While debating the ACA, Democrats tried to pass a “public option” plan similar to Medicare for people who couldn’t find affordable coverage in the private market. But they didn’t have the votes, even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. That’s part of the reason the ACA provides subsidies for lower-income Americans to buy insurance in the private market but does not provide new ways to enroll in a government plan.
That ground has clearly shifted. Biden rejects Medicare for All, arguing that Americans don’t want to eliminate all private insurance. But he backs a public option of the sort Congress couldn’t pass a decade ago. That has become the least radical position among Democrats, and shifts in public sentiment seem to back this up. With health care costs gobbling up an increasing portion of the typical family budget, support for a single-payer health-care plan like Medicare for All has risen—but support for a Biden-style public option has risen by more.
Sanders deserves some credit for that. His relentless sloganeering since the 2016 presidential campaign has nearly made “Medicare for All” a household phrase, which is important in popularizing the whole concept. He has made similar inroads with the Green New Deal, the far left plan to eliminate carbon fuel and aggressively tackle global warming. Like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal goes much further than most Americans prefer. It would dramatically disrupt the energy and transportation industries and replace free-market innovation with government-dictated solutions. But the environmental plan is also pushing moderates into a more aggressive stance on climate change.
Biden doesn’t favor the Green New Deal, but his climate plan is also more aggressive than the positions of the Obama administration. Biden aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a longer timeframe than the Green New Deal calls for but still an aggressive target. Biden wouldn’t ban hydraulic fracturing and other forms of drilling as Sanders would, but he’d establish powerful incentives to move away from carbon fuel. Even this agenda could be hard to get through Congress, but if Biden wins the presidency and tries, Sanders can legitimately claim to have helped get it on the agenda.
Sanders, 78, may become a less visible political presence. He clearly relished the attention he got as a competitive presidential candidate, but he’ll be 82 by the time the 2024 presidential campaign rolls around. If he lost twice and still tried to run again as an octogenarian, it could end up embarrassing. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is in a position to carry the Sanders revolution forward. She’s a spry 70 and could end up with a prominent role in a Biden administration.
Still, the Sanders-Warren revolution did hit a ceiling, with Biden and other moderate Democrats winning far more votes in the primaries than the super-liberal Sanders and Warren. That’s why Biden ran away with the race once four other moderates dropped out and he consolidated the moderate vote. Sanders and Warren excited their supporters, but they badly overestimated how many there might be. The lesson for Biden as he goes up against Trump is that Americans want some change, just not too much.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.