At last, the presidential campaign is narrowing and consolidating. After months of free-for-all, Democratic voters may finally be able to move beyond the cacophonous, multicandidate shouting fests and, with the race down to just a couple of serious contenders, address the fundamental questions: Do they want to put forward a progressive who promises radical change or a moderate who would move more incrementally? Which of those two types of candidate is most likely to defeat President Trump? And which would make the best president?
This is indeed a battle for the soul of the party, but it is a fight that has been obscured as a dozen potential candidates have wrestled noisily for position in the early primaries. Now, with Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer out of the race as of Monday and Mike Bloomberg withdrawing on Wednesday (after winning only American Samoa), it’s time for Democrats to consider their options, pick a path forward and move on to the enormous showdown ahead in November.
That will be the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes, and the choices Democrats make in the weeks ahead could determine whether Trump wins reelection or is rightly defeated.
The front-runners for the nomination — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — represent the two poles of the party. They are the pragmatic establishment candidate and the revolutionary who says he will upend the status quo. Each comes with significant strengths and serious weaknesses.
Biden has a decades-long history of public service and stalwart liberalism in the Senate and the White House, but we, like others, worry about his sharpness, his gaffes and his ability to stand up to Trump forcefully during a general election campaign.
Sanders comes with at least as much baggage, and probably more. Yes, he brings the passion, authenticity and clarity of message that have galvanized young voters around the country. But we worry about whether he can beat Trump, who seems to salivate at the thought of running against a self-described democratic socialist, and about how he’d govern. Can a candidate that far left really win a general election in the United States, and if he did, could he accomplish (and could we afford) even a few of the many things he’s promised?
(They are not the only ones still in the race. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is running far behind the two leaders, is taking some “time and space” to decide what to do next. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who picked up her first delegate on Super Tuesday in American Samoa’s caucus, is even farther behind than Warren.)
The differences between the two leading contenders will undoubtedly come into sharp focus in the weeks ahead, hopefully in a manner both honest and dignified. The candidates should be allowed to make their best cases for themselves; no one should be hounded out of the race. But at the same time, they should keep their eyes on the ultimate prize: ridding the country of President Trump, the worst president in modern American history. Their decisions should be guided by that imperative.
In assessing the remaining candidates, it’s worth remembering that the post-Trump era, which we fervently hope will begin in January 2021, will be at least as much about leadership as about policy. We can debate whether Obamacare is a smarter and more workable foundation for improving healthcare in this country, or whether “Medicare for all” would be better. But the country and the world will be anxiously hanging on the next president’s ability to foster respect for and confidence in basic American norms and institutions such as fair elections, independent courts, democracy and truth, and to repair them where they have been allowed to corrode or degrade. The next president must be able to undo the damage caused not just by Trump but also by the movement that created him — and which will undoubtedly outlast him. The new president must reinvigorate the fading perception that the U.S. is a reliable and effective partner in protecting liberty, justice and — now — human survival and planetary habitability.
Whichever candidate is ultimately nominated, Democrats must rally behind that person without hesitation.
After the next election, either the United States will return to normalcy after four nightmarish years, or we will drive ourselves deeper into chaos, irresponsibility and isolation. Trump’s election in 2016 was a colossal mistake, but if he were to be reelected, it would be an unmitigated catastrophe. He must be defeated at the ballot box on Nov. 3 — because four more years of climate denial, race-baiting, dishonesty, divisiveness, rising income inequality and imprudent, injudicious, illegal governance could leave our country irremediably damaged. Democrats cannot afford to lose sight of that reality.