Biden or Sanders?

I want to weigh in briefly on the Biden/Sanders debate that’s been going on here over the past few days. No links, this is a quickie.

There are two issues for Democratic primary voters to consider: 1) who will be a better president and 2) who is more electable in a race against Trump. Both questions are hard to answer.

It is very difficult to say who would be a better president, even for people on the left of the Democratic party. Presidents have very little influence over legislation. If Congress decides to pass a much less aggressive health care bill than Sanders and his supporters want, what is Sanders going to do about it? Yell at some Congress people? The fact is that the legislative agenda of Congress will be shaped by the need to secure the votes of moderates in the Democratic party, and maybe a few Republican centrists. Biden may be more effective at working with Congress because (my sense is) a fair number of Congress people don’t like Sanders. Of course, Biden’s deal making and horse trading will not be enough to implement the Sanders’ agenda, but Sanders’ won’t be able to implement his agenda either, so it doesn’t matter.

Presidents do have a fair amount of influence over policy through their control of executive branch appointments, and indirectly over the agency rule making process. I am not sure which candidate is stronger in this regard (neither will be as strong as Warren would have been), and with the judiciary newly stacked with conservative judges and justices getting things done through administrative agencies will be difficult in any event.

The simple fact is that it is going to be a long and painful 4 years no matter which Dem wins. But it will be far worse if neither wins.

Next up electability

So what about electability? This is the critical issue, but figuring out who will be the stronger candidate against Trump is more art than science.

My own view based on my reading of the political science literature (no links, sorry) and my sense of the candidates is that Biden will have a better chance to defeat Trump in the general election, but either candidate could win and my assessment could easily be wrong.

There are issues about Biden’s age and health. There are issues with his temperament. The same is true for Sanders, and of course for Trump.

Sanders is a stronger campaigner than Biden. He is more articulate, more confident, better at sounding like he’s answering a question while avoiding it, etc. Biden is undisciplined, not particularly inspirational or articulate, and gaffe-prone.

On the other hand, moderate candidates do better in elections than more extreme candidates. Sanders has been unable to win over a majority of Democratic primary voters; how is he supposed to win over cross-pressured voters who went for Trump in 2016? Sanders claims that he can turn out the Democratic vote, especially the youth vote, but his youth voting claim was always more of a hope than a plan, and results in the primaries so far cast real doubt on it. In addition, there is evidence that extreme candidates motivate people to turn out for the other side (i.e., Trump). This seems likely to be true for Sanders. Biden will likely have a turnout advantage over Sanders with black voters due his loyal service as Obama’s VP. Sanders’ ambitious legislative agenda will also be a potent weapon for Trump to use against him with key groups – health care workers and insurance company employees who fear Medicare for All, and people who work in fracking in PA, for example. Sanders’ agenda is so ambitious that it risks creating a thermostatic backlash against the Dems before the election.

Both candidates will be viciously attacked by Trump and his surrogates. Biden will take incoming fire over Ukraine and his son, over his age, his mental and physical health, his past stances and gaffes. Sanders . . . what can I say? In addition to his health and his age, and his long legislative record, there is the fact that he is . . . how can I put this delicately? . . . a socialist. As I said, I believe that Sanders may be able to win a general election contest against Trump, but anyone who thinks being a lifelong socialist is a general election advantage in the United States is smoking dope. And Sanders has not shown any ability to tone down his message or move to the center. He keeps it dialed up to 11 all the time. (This is one critical area in which Sanders’ campaign style may be a real liability.)

Whoever wins the nomination, it will be critical to unite the Democratic party. Sanders in particular will need to rally his supporters to vote for Biden if Biden gets the nod. This could easily tip a close election. Establishment Dems will need to hold their noses and support Sanders if he wins the nominating contest. And perhaps most critically, the nominee, the party, and their surrogates will need to push back hard against bullshit press coverage that equates the weaknesses and flaws of either Sanders or Biden with the manifest unfitness for office of Trump. Each Trump scandal and each Trump lie need to get their own headline, even if that means the headlines are full of Trump scandal stories. There can be no equivalence between the flaws in the records of Biden or Sanders and Trump’s refusal to say he will abide by the results of the election, his family separation policy, his support for white supremacists, his tax cuts for the rich and his broken promises on health care. We cannot let the press do to Dems in 2020 what they did to Clinton with the fake email scandal in 2016.