Sen. Bernie Sanders urged his supporters to vote for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in November, calling his onetime presidential rival the party’s best hope to unseat President Donald Trump in a sweeping online address Monday at the Democratic National Convention.
“This election is the most important in modern history,” Sanders said during his keynote address. “We need an unprecedented response. A movement like never before, against greed, oligarchy and bigotry. And we need Joe Biden as our next president.”
The independent senator from Vermont spoke directly to his own supporters on Monday, urging them to throw their weight behind the former vice president while noting Biden had adopted a spate of progressive policies and earned Sanders’ support.
“My friends, thank you for your trust and the love you showed Jane and me ... Together we have moved this country in a bold new direction,” Sanders said, referring to his wife. “Our campaign ended several months ago, but our movement continues and is getting stronger every day. Many of the ideas we fought for that just a few years ago were considered radical are now mainstream.”
Sanders remains a somewhat polarizing figure within the Democratic electorate. He inspires passionate devotion from the party’s progressive wing and voters who have lost faith in conventional Democratic leadership, but he also elicits resentment from more moderate Democrats who often blame him for sowing division within the party during his 2016 run against Hillary Clinton. Though Sanders caucuses with the Democratic Party and is a member of Democratic leadership, his critics often note that he is not technically a Democrat.
But on Monday night, Sanders toned down his populist pitch in favor of a partisan rallying cry, complete with mocking asides that, at times, resembled the anti-Trump broadsides of a more mainstream liberal.
He took direct aim at Trump’s first term in office, pointing to the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and his efforts to undermine doctors and scientists as tens of thousands of Americans died of COVID-19.
“Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” the senator said. “Trump golfs. His actions fanned this pandemic resulting in over 170,000 deaths and a nation still unprepared to protect its people.”
Sanders’s case against Trump was nonetheless distinct from the argument presented by other Democrats. From the moment Trump was elected, Sanders vowed to hold him accountable for the Republican president’s campaign-trail promises to eschew GOP economic orthodoxy on Social Security, Medicare, corporate influence and other kitchen-table priorities.
With Trump’s first term coming to a close, Sanders declared on Monday that the verdict was in: Trump and his administration had been “to put it bluntly, frauds.”
“In 2016, Trump promised he would stand with working families. He said that he would ‘drain the swamp,’ take on Wall Street and powerful special interests,” Sanders said. “He would protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and, by the way, he would provide health care to ‘everybody.’ Well, none of it was true.”
Sanders is known for delving into economic policy in his speeches to a much greater degree than other politicians. His remarks Monday were no exception, pitching progressives on Biden’s merits rather than focusing exclusively on Trump’s flaws. He cited Biden’s plans to provide universal paid family leave, make it easier to join unions, lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60, transform the country’s infrastructure, eliminate private prisons and end cash bail.
“Joe Biden will end the hate and division Trump has created. He will stop the demonization of immigrants, the coddling of white nationalists, the racist dog whistling, the religious bigotry and the ugly attacks on women.”
It says as much about Trump’s power to galvanize his rivals as it does about Sanders’s flexibility as a politician that Sanders kept his remarks brief. Sanders’s speech was 800 words shorter than his remarks in support of the nomination of Clinton in 2016.
But in addition to tighter time constraints for this year’s remote convention, Sanders’s relative brevity was a feature of his simpler and more dire message. Whereas in 2016, Sanders described Trump as a threat likely to destabilize the country, on Monday he denounced the president for the destruction he has already wrought.
It is not just the economic and social well-being of the country at stake in the November election, but democracy itself, Sanders warned.
“Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country,” Sanders said. “As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.”
Sanders endorsed Biden in April shortly after ending his own bid for the presidency following a series of poor showings in Democratic primaries around the country. At the time, the Vermont senator urged his progressive followers to back the more moderate former vice president, while saying he would remain on the ballot in an effort to ensure his policies were included in the Democratic Party platform.
“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, which I endorse,” Sanders had said, addressing Biden.
The two have deepened their cooperation in recent months, unveiling a massive set of joint policy proposals in July as part of a “unity task force.” The positions included a ban on for-profit charter schools, a mandate on net-zero emissions for all buildings by 2030 and a 100-day moratorium on deportations.
Biden has been more open to adjusting his platform to include more progressive proposals, and while the task force’s ultimate positions may have been disappointing to some of Sanders’ more activist supporters, the Vermont lawmaker said they were a good foundation Biden could build on during his presidency.
“Though the end result is not what I or my supporters would have written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction,” Sanders told NBC last month after the proposals were released.
Many of Sanders’s progressive supporters have been less satisfied with the hints that Biden has dropped about how he plans to govern. Activists were especially disappointed to see Republicans like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich get more prominent billing at the convention than progressive stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Biden’s inner circle of economic and foreign policy advisers is comprised of experts and consultants from Washington’s business-friendly centrist establishment.
Of course, to hear Republicans tell it ― with only the most dubious of evidence ― Biden has sold out to Sanders almost entirely. Shortly after Sanders’s remarks, the Trump campaign sent out a fundraising email with the subject line “Bernie Sanders’s Socialist Agenda Is On The Ballot.”
Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest wrote in an email to reporters, “Bernie Sanders speaking tonight is proof that Sanders’ socialist agenda is Joe Biden’s agenda.”
It’s perhaps a measure of Sanders’s influence that Republicans see him as a significant enough force to be a political liability for Democrats, but mainstream Democrats no longer view his ideas as politically lethal. While Biden continues to steer clear of “Medicare for All” and student debt cancellation, Sanders helped make other policies, such as a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, official party doctrine.
One thing is clear: Sanders’s relationship with Biden is far warmer than his tenuous alliance of convenience with Clinton was in 2016. He has admitted that he has a stronger working relationship with Biden that dates back to their many years together in Congress. Some of Sanders’s campaign staffers this cycle even faulted Sanders for letting his personal affection for Biden interfere with attacking the former vice president more effectively during the primary contest.
Biden has reciprocated, embracing Sanders’s support despite their earlier rivalry. He thanked Sanders last month for “working together to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come.” Biden’s team also agreed to seat hundreds of convention delegates that Sanders would have otherwise forfeited and shepherded the passage of a rule change extending for another cycle the disempowerment of “superdelegates” and other reforms initially sought by Sanders.
On Monday, Sanders said that, though the pair had disagreed in the past, he knew that the former vice president would enter the White House ready to “fight on Day One.”
“My friends, I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the primary, and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump … the future of our democracy is at stake, the future of our economy is at stake, the future of our planet is at stake,” he said. “We must come together.”