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How Joe Biden won over Bernie Sanders — and the Democratic Party

Joe Biden and the power of transactional politics.


On Monday, Joe Biden’s campaign teased a “special guest” would join him for an afternoon livestream. The guest turned out to be Sen. Bernie Sanders, who offered a fulsome endorsement of his onetime competitor.

“Today, I am asking all Americans,” Sanders said to Biden, “I’m asking every Democrat, I’m asking every independent, I’m asking a lot of Republicans to come together in this campaign to support your candidacy.”

Biden and Sanders also announced plans to form joint working groups, consisting of staff from both of their campaigns, to shape the Democratic Party’s approach to six issues: climate change, criminal justice, the economy, education, health care, and immigration.

“It’s no great secret out there, Joe, that you and I have our differences, and we’re not going to paper them over,” Sanders said. “That’s real. But I hope that these task forces will come together utilizing the best minds and people in your campaign and in my campaign to work out real solutions to these very, very important problems.”

I’ve watched a lot of endorsement events; they typically follow one of two scripts. Either they’re grudging affairs in which the vanquished competitor admits defeat for the good of the party, or they’re obsequious events in which the vanquished competitor angles for a future position or favor.

This wasn’t either of those. Sanders and Biden noted repeatedly that they disagreed but that they were friends — had been for a long time — and saw themselves in coalition with each other. The closest analogue was what you see in multi-party systems, where one party wins the election and absorbs its nearest competitors into a governing coalition by giving them substantive influence over the agenda and key staffing appointments.

“I know you are the kind of guy who is going to be inclusive,” Sanders said. “You want to bring people in, even people who disagree with you. You want to hear what they have to say. We can argue it out. It’s called democracy. You believe in democracy. So do I. Let’s respect each other. Let’s address the challenges we face right now and in the future. And in that regard, Joe, I very much look forward to working with you.”

It’s never clear, in advance, what a task force — or six of them — will amount to. But this is a lot more than winning candidates typically offer their competitors.

“We just can’t think about building back to the way things were before,” Biden said. “That is not good enough. We need to build for a better future and that’s exactly what these task forces, your team and mine, have been put together to focus on.”

Biden is running to lead a party, not win an argument

Campaigns encourage a kind of zero-sum thinking, and understandably so: For one candidate to win, others have to lose. Some campaigns lean into that dynamic, promising — as Sanders often did — that their victory will mean the end of the party establishment or the triumph of one faction over another.

But that’s not been Biden’s approach.

The Rosetta Stone to understanding Biden is understanding that he is wholly, perhaps uniquely, shaped by spending his entire adulthood in the US Senate. Legislating, at its best, is positive-sum work. You don’t win by crushing the people who agree with you on 70 percent of the issues and disagree with you 30 percent. You win by closing that divide through compromises and concessions. You win by getting their votes.

Democratic presidential candidates attended the MLK Day march and rally on January 20, 2020.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Biden was a master of this kind of thing. He spent decades in the Senate and was a central player, both for good and for ill, on more bills than I can count. He’s eager to cut deals, form coalitions, and make compromises to win support. For the most part, those deals dogged Biden during the primary, and his senatorial instincts were seen as a weakness. His long record and conciliatory temperament gave opponents reams of ammunition with which to attack him.

But what’s become clear in the final months of the campaign is that those underlying skills have served him well. No one would say Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee because of his glittering speeches or razor-sharp debate performances. At crucial moments in the primary, he outmaneuvered his competitors through transactional, coalitional politics. He won them over rather than ran them over.

Most pivotally — and much to the frustration of Sanders — Biden cut deals with Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg that convinced them to drop out and endorse his campaign on the eve of Super Tuesday. Then, in a bid to win Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement, or at least stop her from endorsing Sanders, he conceded on the argument that has defined their relationship, adopting her bankruptcy reform bill as his own. And now, in an effort to win not just Sanders’s endorsement but his actual support, he’s building a novel structure through which Sanders’s ideas and staff can shape Biden’s campaign and agenda.

One concern liberals and leftists have long had with Biden is his instinct for cutting deals means he’ll sell them out to the right to win Republican votes. Maybe so. But what Biden is proving in this campaign is he’s just as willing to cut deals with the left, and his coalitional approach to politics is an opportunity for them to influence him, as well.

As Waleed Shahid, spokesman for the leftist Justice Democrats, tweeted, “a major factor in a movement’s ability to shape a party is if the party’s leadership and nominee concretely signal that the constituency is a major part of the ‘party coalition.’ Sanders-Biden summit was a signal.”

In all of this, Biden is acting less like a candidate than a party leader, less like one side of an argument that will be settled by his victory and more like a legislator who recognizes the only way to win is to make real, serious concessions to his colleagues. He’s not asking the left to “bend the knee” and accept his victory. He’s inviting them into coalition and offering concrete concessions and avenues of influence in return for their participation.

Rhetorically, Biden has run as Barack Obama’s vice president, harkening back in his service in the last Democratic White House. But Biden’s approach to politics was formed in the Senate, and substantively, that’s the approach that’s come to define his campaign. For all that Biden has talked about governing like Obama, he’s winning very much like himself.

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