With Washington state in play on March 10, my primary vote will matter for the first time in decades. We had a “show primary” for years, providing an advisory vote following a caucus that undemocratically selected our choice for nominee. But now I’ll get to cast a ballot that affects the future. As of this morning, with my preferred choice of Elizabeth Warren exiting, I am down to two angry old white men: Joe Biden v. Bernie Sanders.
On its face, this is a bad choice. Since James Buchanan, whenever the Democrats have nominated a candidate older than 60, they have lost. When they go young, they win. But Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg are not walking through that door. These are our contenders.
But what contenders they are. On resume, Biden has everything. His Senate career runs circles around Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, Bennet, Gililbrand, and Harris combined, and his executive experience as vice president and chief policy negotiator of the most inspiring presidency ever is unshakable. When Joe says he was there, he was there. Meanwhile, Sanders has the bona fides. His unwavering ideological faith and front-line righteousness paints a vision more clearly than any candidate has since JFK. Everything about him screams “This man will change everything.” He is our FDR, if we give him the chance. We are lucky to have both of them.
Policy-wise, both are liberals through and through. They disagree on some details, but agree on principles. More significantly, though, they are highly different politically. Their starkest difference comes in whose money they accept and what support they welcome. You could go either way on this: Bernie’s purity test leaves many needed resources at the door; Biden’s lack of same leaves the people wondering who he will support if he wins.
For me, it comes down to the issue of who can win against Trump. I have already killed the myth of electability, and I am not going to revive its corpse here. Demographically, they’re the same man anyway. But what the candidates say and who they are is relevant to whether they will win. Therein is a huge difference.
Joe Biden is the everyman. His life has been writ large before us. He lost a wife and a daughter in a car crash, and another son to the same brain cancer that killed his friend John McCain. That friendship is one of the most remarkable things about Biden, and points to a quality essential in healing America after Trump is dispatched. Biden is a living, breathing fireside chat. We really need that right now. With the coronavirus bearing down on us, with the economy on a precipice, with the world destabilized by Trump’s tariffs and embrace of dictators, we need a president who can make it seem okay. Biden can do that.
And oh, does he not like Trump. He may have disliked Trump earlier, but the extreme personalness of the Ukraine scandal has electrified him. The man who lost two children just saw Trump attack his son. One on one, Biden will boil over on Trump. Should Trump loom behind him in a town hall debate, Biden will punch him in the throat. We’d all love to see that. Biden is the vector of our rage against Trump, and will not be extinguished.
Bernie Sanders is not that man. For someone who wants to occupy the most public position in the world, he does not let anyone in. He is famously private; we barely know his wife, we never see his kids, and I don’t even know if he has any pets. While that’s certainly fine on the surface, there’s also a clarity that he doesn’t let anyone else into his decision-making either. We have seen what that’s like the last three-plus years with Trump, and it’s not good. Bernie is minted; he is going to change nothing about himself ever. This inflexibility makes it hard to imagine any idea he articulates will ever become reality. Yelling at the clouds doesn’t end the rain.
That has manifested horrifically for him in the last couple weeks. He has been badly outplayed by the moderate-liberal wing of the Democratic Party, after demonizing them. This tweet was the end of all hope for unity:
Which is not so bright if you think you want the Democratic nomination. In one very on-brand moment, Sanders proclaimed that he had to win on the first ballot, because the knives would be out on the second. Hooboy, it didn’t go well for him after that. Biden’s victory in South Carolina was followed by a near-instantaneous ranks-closing by the Democratic Party. Buttigieg out, Klobuchar out, Bloomberg out. Sanders had a chance to ally with Warren, and didn’t take the shot. Biden has the “JoeMentum” now, and whether he wins a majority or Sanders wins a plurality, Biden will win.
That has been coupled with a complete fumbling of his moral edge. The Castro comment was a turning point for me. On 60 Minutes, he said:
“But you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came to office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”
No matter whether that’s true, you never praise Castro. Bernie threw away Florida. Biden will beat him there by 35 points. This is very bad.
Bernie Sanders is not a strategic politician. He’s an ideologue. If you don’t agree with him on everything, you’re a bad person. It’s reflected in the tone of his supporters. To his credit, this finally seems to be penetrating his thick skull. Yesterday, he went on MSNBC and excoriated his followers for their “ugly, personal attacks” on Elizabeth Warren. This is the only time he has taken personal responsibility for the toxicity common to his movement, without blaming Russian trolls and the corporate media. My guess is that he senses he will lose if he is perceived as a bully. But it’s probably too late for that. The world has rallied against Bernie, and it will be very hard to get it back. Even if he wins the nomination, the confirmation of his socialist label will drag on him in the general, and may also tank moderate candidates for the House and Senate. This is why Trump is rooting him on.
Biden has a better chance to win in the primary, a better chance to win in the general, and a better chance to get what he wants accomplished if he wins. And with all of that noted, I’m voting for Bernie Sanders.
I have written 53 of these columns, and if there’s one thing that’s obvious, it’s that I believe in game theory as a guide. Not a manifesto, just a guide. Much of game theory depends on understanding payoffs. You don’t have to like everything about your situation in the prisoner’s dilemma. You just have to know what everyone else will do, and act accordingly, in your best interest. Because you expect me to, I’ll explain my choice mathematically.
Your choice depends on what numbers you set, and those numbers will vary from person to person. I’ll theorize that Biden has a 60% chance of beating Bernie, a 60% chance of beating Trump, and a 60% chance of enacting his agenda, and Sanders has a 40% chance of each. Since a candidate must win the first battle to attempt the second, and the second to attempt the third, you could multiply whatever Biden hopes to get by .216 (.6×.6×.6), and what Sanders hopes to get by .064 (.4×.4×.4). Doesn’t look good for Bernie, right?
Maybe not, but now you have to look at what they want. Biden is promising you a return to Obama-era sufficiency. That’s good. But it’s not great. What Bernie Sanders hopes to get is everything: Medicare for All. An aggressive climate change policy. Trade agreements that put workers first. Free public college. An end to the politics of corruption. And on and on. Bernie may not have a plan for that, as Warren might say, but he does have a dream. He has a chance of getting it through. It may not be the best chance. But it’s a chance of something fantastic. This isn’t betting on whether God exists. It’s betting on whether God exists when he’s standing right in front of you.
If I need to do the numbers, I can rate what Biden wants as a 30 and what Sanders wants as a 100. I want those things too. Using my numbers, Biden gets a 6.48 (.216×30) rating from me and Sanders a 6.4 (.064×100). These are basically identical. Despite everything, to me, Sanders is as good a bet as Biden, because the upside of a Sanders presidency is so much higher.
So if that’s effectively tied in my head, how did I get to supporting Sanders? There is one area where Sanders so effectively destroys Biden that it can’t be ignored. That is game.
You know what game is. It’s the sense that the opponent you face is just better than you. The saying in basketball is “Game recognizes game.” Kevin Garnett had game, but he knew that Michael Jordan had more game than he did. Look at this amazing pair of side-by-side interviews with Garnett and J.R. Rider about facing Michael.
JR Rider & Kevin Garnett talk about the time a young KG made the mistake of talking trash in front of MJ 😅 pic.twitter.com/VfL57upGhB
— Jumpman History (@HistoryJumpman) February 20, 2020
That’s game. To win the ring, you better have it.
Joe Biden has run a terrible campaign. Out of the gate, Biden embraced the principle that the nomination was his, and he didn’t have to campaign. He failed to staff up, and then maxed out his donors and frittered away their donations. He fumbled valid concerns about his treatment of women. Then he crashed and burned in debate after debate. He made multiple gaffes, like he always does, but some of them stuck. He could not muster a believable defense of his son’s employment by Burisma. Going into South Carolina, he lost every state. His candidacy was deemed not viable in many caucus sites. To put it in terms an Amtrak devotee like him can understand, the Biden campaign has been a train wreck.
Meanwhile, Sanders has put together the greatest campaign of all time. It has succeeded far beyond the candidate’s personal shortcomings. It has more contributors, more contributions, and more (non-Bloomberg/Steyer) money than any primary campaign ever. It mobilizes like no other, especially in the support of young people—though, to be fair, those young people better start voting in droves soon, or he’s toast. Everything about the Sanders campaign is historic. It is a juggernaut. Juggernauts can be stopped, but it’s the kind of juggernaut that I’d take my chances on. The upside is so high. Democrats win when they run on youth, which I’m willing to gamble applies even if the “youth” in question is very old.
I’m inclined to bet on game. If it can be this effective even with a stuck-in-his-ways old man at the helm, it’s got a damn good chance of steamrolling everything in its path. The train must drive uphill now, but I trust its engine. I just hope its engineer is up to the task.
Go, Bernie, go.
This is the 54th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, and progressive unity. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.