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joe & bernie

The sad absurdity of the Sanders left: Holding what the campaign billed “a racial and economic justice town hall” in Flint, Michigan, to rejuvenate his candidacy among African-Americans, Sanders set aside the speech he had written. Although he wants to be president of the United States, he apparently didn’t want to presume he could speak about black people’s aspirations and needs, so he yielded the stage to local activists and Cornel West. Dubbing Biden a “neoliberal centrist,” West decried the results of Super Tuesday: “The neoliberalist who all of a sudden now is coming back to life, and the catalyst was my own black people. Oh, I’m so disappointed.” He worried to the largely white audience, “What has happened to our black leadership? Some have just sold out.” Sanders’s own role was reduced to lofting softball questions to his panelists.

The sad absurdity of the liberal left: We are now consigned to supporting Joe Biden, whom I admire and would be delighted to have as my neighbor or drinking buddy—but president? His record as a former vice-president and senator has the sinewy complexity that any responsible politician’s decades of decisions and service ought to have. That in itself is admirable. It makes him vulnerable to the applause-lines in the Flint town hall regarding crime bills and housing laws and at the same time draws endorsements for his effectiveness with health care reform, women’s rights, and foreign policy negotiations. Ideological purity is the currency and piety of the Sanders left, and Bernie has maintained his by posturing and hectoring rather than legislating and leading. Biden, though, needs to get beyond gestures to the past, whether the good old days of reaching across the aisle to good ol’ boys or his partnership and friendship with Barack Obama. That played an important role in solidifying support of various segments of donors and voters in the primaries thus far. It will be nearly irrelevant in the general election. O’Biden Bama will not do. Trump, his team of rivals (the surviving conniving rivals: Pence, Barr, Pompeo, Miller), and the increasingly rightwing and religious judiciary have already rendered the Obama years an object of nostalgia not the launchpad for the future.

So: Sanders peddles a vision of the future he cannot deliver on, while Biden evokes a past he cannot recover. Two terrible misunderstandings of political temporality. Can Democrats intuit the kairos of 2020 and act with vision, shrewdness, and inspiration?

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