Two years before the 2016 election, pundits sneered when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he might run for president because he thought the Democratic Party had lost touch with millions of disaffected Americans. Chris Cillizza, then with the Washington Post, gave Sanders the worst odds of 10 potential Democratic candidates and said the self-declared democratic socialist was "doomed to the margins of the race."
Fast forward to February 2016, and Sanders stunned the Democratic establishment by almost beating front-runner Hillary Clinton in Iowa and trouncing her in New Hampshire.
Yes, Sanders eventually lost to Clinton. But he gained a place in history books by showing that millions of voters, especially younger ones, were fed up with what they saw as the caution of Democratic Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Yes, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York also fueled the rise of Democratic progressives. But Sanders did the most to reveal many Americans' appetite for a more generous government — one that offered free college and health care, wiped out student loan debt and required the wealthy to pay far more in taxes.
The 2020 campaign has not gone so well for him. He narrowly lost in Iowa and won in New Hampshire — again — but since the Feb. 29 primary in South Carolina, he has fallen farther and farther behind former Vice President Joe Biden, whose sweep Tuesday in Florida, Illinois and Arizona all but clinched the Democratic nomination. A Sanders aide said Wednesday he would "assess" his options.
It shouldn't be a long assessment. Sanders can burnish his name in history by gracefully conceding the nomination and doing as much as he can to ensure his deeply loyal supporters vote for Biden in November. In 2016, an estimated 12% of Sanders supporters — many believing the Democratic Party acted to get Hillary Clinton nominated — voted for Republican Donald Trump. Some didn't vote at all.
That can't happen again because as disturbing as Trump's presidency has been, the last two months may go down as disastrous. While he has accepted the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and sought to safeguard Americans by shutting the nation down, each day brings fresh evidence of what his delay has cost. On Feb. 24, he tweeted the coronavirus was "very much under control in the USA." Tuesday, many Americans were sheltering in place in their homes while Ohio postponed its primary to protect the public and voters in other states clustered closer together than science says is safe.
Now Trump is trying to rewrite history with a jaw-dropping weekend claim that the pandemic was "something that nobody expected." The truth is Trump's missteps — starting with his administration's slowness in launching mass testing — will lead to unnecessary American deaths. Sanders and his supporters hoped he'd prevail, but fate has something else in store. If he helps Biden win over his followers and defeat Trump, Sanders will have changed history for the better.