The November 2020 Election Is Bigger Than Biden

Now that Bernie Sanders has ended his presidential campaign, his followers are faced with a choice that will define the nation’s courts for decades.

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Jean Namgung

Adam Osman-Krinsky ’21 was a supporter of Bernie Sanders before the senator dropped out of the presidential race in April. Now that Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, Osman-Krinsky believes the party must rally behind him. “I would honestly cry in the ballot box while doing so, but I would vote for Biden,” he said.

If President Donald Trump wins re-election this coming November 2020, it will not be because he ran a particularly smart campaign or is a uniquely popular leader his consistently low approval ratings speak for themselves. Instead, it will be thanks to a coalition of Democratic voters who vote for him over Joe Biden, or who fail to show up to the polls altogether. The 2016 presidential election was decided by just 77,000 votes cast in the three states that Trump won most narrowly Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The 2020 presidential election could be decided by far fewer.

Donald Trump’s defeat rests on Democratic voters getting out to vote, which was arguably the ultimate source of Hillary Clinton’s loss four years ago. Compare these 77,000 votes to the 216,000 Bernie Sanders’ supporters who voted for Trump in the 2016 general election. If just over a third of them had voted for Hillary instead, she could have easily won the presidency. All in all, over a tenth of Bernie supporters voted for Trump rather than Clinton in 2016. Could we see a similar phenomenon in the 2020 matchup between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden?

When President Donald Trump was asked in February 2020 what he believed would happen if Senator Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic presidential nomination, he answered, “The last time we had a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters. I think if they take it away from him like they did the last time, I really believe you’re going to have a very riotous time in the Democrat Party.” 

His words proved prescient. On April 8, 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign. Within a day, #NeverBidenNeverTrump and #DemExit both began trending on Twitter, with many Sanders supporters declaring their intention of staying home come November 2020, a result of their exhaustion with the politics of the Democratic party and disappointment in Biden’s nomination. These votes or lack thereof in the general election will be crucial to determine Biden’s destiny.

Briahna Gray, Sanders’s former press secretary, declined to endorse Biden in April 2020, but clarified that she still could be convinced to vote for him if he meaningfully reached out to the left by incorporating more progressive policies into his platform. Gray is right that Joe Biden is not owed progressive votes just for being a Democrat running against Trump; Bernie’s former supporters are right that their votes must be earned. 

Since Bernie dropped out, Biden has already been taking strides to earn the votes of those that did not support him in the primary. Biden recently adopted Elizabeth Warren’s plan for bankruptcy (a plan which undoes much of a 2005 banking bill that Biden once voted for as a senator), began supporting part of Bernie’s plan for student debt forgiveness, and proposed lowering the Medicaid eligibility age to 60. These are not minor changes, and they represent the Biden campaign’s eagerness to compromise with progressive advocates and bring more people onboard their campaign. But some progressives claim Biden’s efforts are still not enough, and others say that there is nothing Biden could do to convince them to vote for him.

Another factor sowing discontent among Democratic voters in the 2020 election is the current allegations of sexual assault against Biden by his former Senate staffer, Tara Reade. Reade’s accusation that Biden forced himself on her in 1993 has been received and handled terribly across the board. Left-leaning media organizations like The New York Times have failed to adequately cover her allegations, and the minor reporting that they have done is radically different from the media’s treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. Biden’s campaign addressed the accusations too late, misrepresented statements by Reade about her alleged assault, and have refused to make Biden’s Senate records publicly available, preventing Americans from reading a complaint Reade filed shortly after the alleged assault. Biden’s supporters have also attacked Reade’s character relentlessly and without shame, begging the question of if Democrats were ever serious about the messages of #MeToo.

I believe Tara Reade. I do not think that Reade’s (relatively minor) changes to her story in recent months serve as proof of her lying; it is not uncommon for survivors to change their stories as they remember repressed details and come to terms with their trauma, especially a trauma allegedly perpetrated by such a powerful man. In the wake of her allegations, Reade has received death threats, been accused of being a Russian spy, and had her reputation tarnished in a smear campaign that I doubt she would have been willing to suffer through if her allegations were false.

There is virtually no chance, based on his statements so far, that Biden will bow to the pressure coming from some on the left and drop out of the presidential race. So I think it is safe to assume that the presidential election will be between Biden and Trump, two men accused of sexual harassment and assault by numerous women. It is a choice facing America that makes me sick to think about, and it is forcing Democrats to question how they can reconcile their philosophy of believing survivors with a vote for Biden in November 2020.

Confronted with such a confounding decision, what should voters do? While I am deeply conflicted over the morality of Biden’s presumptive nomination, I do not think it should be impossible to believe Reade and still vote for Biden. Unlike Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, where Trump could have recalled him due to the sexual assault allegation and appointed someone else, one of these two men will be elected President in November 2020. There is no way of avoiding that, just like there is no way of ignoring the credible allegations of sexual misconduct against both men. Voting for Trump poses an existential threat to our country, a threat that I believe goes far beyond Biden’s deep personal flaws. Ultimately, Democratic voters struggling with their choice should remember that the election in November is much larger than the Democratic nominee himself: it is about the judiciary.

The election in November will arguably determine the course of the next half-century, not because of the next president’s policies, but because of the power that he will wield over federal judicial appointments. The President has the power to nominate judges to serve on the Supreme Court, the 13 district courts, and the 94 district courts. President Trump has already been filling vacancies at breakneck speed. In his first term, Trump named two Supreme Court justices to the Supreme Court and more than a quarter of all judges on the appeals courts. Compare this to President Obama: while Trump has already appointed 50 appellate judges in 3 years, Obama named all of 55 in his entire 8 years.

These judges’ political impact stems from their lifelong appointments. They cannot be removed from their positions, unless the House of Representatives approves articles of impeachment and the Senate votes to convict them, a feat that has only occurred seven times in U.S. history. They have tremendous power over the direction of society; judges serving on the appellate courts have the final say on cases that will decide the future of hot-button issues, from government funding of abortion to immigration, lobbying, and more. The Supreme Court issues decisions on less than 100 cases per year; the appellate courts issue decisions on thousands more. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once famously remarked, “the court of appeals is where policy is made.” 

The lifelong service of these judges is what makes them so crucial to the election in November. Our nation’s Presidents and Congressional representatives are bound by their constituents’ wishes, and must decide which policies to support or oppose with the shadow of regular elections hanging over their heads. Judges are not restricted by popular opinion, but they have even more influence on the issues most fundamental to our democracy. Executive orders can be repealed and laws vetoed, but judicial decisions create precedents that have long-lasting ramifications on the policies and procedures of the future. 

Republicans made a smart move in their 2016 campaign: they emphasized the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, as one of the key reasons to vote for Trump. At the time, the late Antonin Scalia’s seat was still vacant, so voters knew that their decision in the election would determine at least one Supreme Court Justice. Voters in 2020 can probably assume a similar responsibility: while there are no vacant seats, two of the four liberal justices on the court are currently over 80 years old (Justices Stephen Breyers and Ruth Bader Ginsburg). There’s a significant likelihood that one of them will retire in the next president’s term, possibly handing Trump the chance to appoint a third conservative judge to the nation’s highest court. 

The Democratic Party should take a page from the Republican’s 2016 playbook and highlight the importance of the next President’s effect on the courts. Democratic voters who did not support Biden in the primaries are doing a disservice to their own cause if they choose not to vote for him in November. Adam Osman-Krinsky ’21 is not old enough to vote in November, but if he were, he would have voted for Bernie in the primaries and Biden in the general election. “I think Bernie voters who wouldn’t vote for Biden aren’t looking out for the best interests of this country. I don’t like Biden as much as the next guy, but a Democrat being elected president will absolutely push for liberal policies,” he said.

Many progressive opponents of Biden’s justify their lack of support for him by claiming that he is far too moderate and instead want to wait for a Democratic candidate who is sufficiently progressive. But that is taking a massive risk, because handing Trump the presidency will allow him to build a judiciary so entrenched in conservatism that it would render any progressive agenda impotent. Biden may not pass the radical policies that many progressives want, but he will build an infrastructure of support for more progressive presidents in the future.

Ultimately, the choice that faces voters in November 2020 is not about Biden or Trump. It is much larger than that. Democrats wary of supporting Biden must look beyond him, to a future that is decades down the line, where a truly progressive president is waiting to be elected. It is up to us to determine if this president’s agenda will be fully realized, or if it will be struck down thanks to the decisions of 2020.

“I think Bernie voters who wouldn’t vote for Biden aren’t looking out for the best interests of this country,” said Adam Osman-Krinsky ’21.

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