As Coronavirus Crisis Unfolds, Sanders Sees a Moment That Matches His Ideas


Both hands were waving — over here, over there, a full wingspan on display — as Bernie Sanders directed his most biting sarcasm at his “Republican friends.”

Excuse him, forgive him, for wanting working people to get a few more bucks for a few more months as part of the sweeping stimulus bill that was being debated on the Senate floor. Excuse him, forgive him, for not wanting “to punish the poor and working people” struggling to weather the economic meltdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“My Republican colleagues are very distressed,” he said late Wednesday.

“Oh my God, the universe is collapsing!” he said so passionately that he nearly spat. “Oh my word, will the universe survive?!”

With the virus bringing the nation to a virtual stop, there is no real presidential campaign for Mr. Sanders to engage in, and even if there were, he is almost hopelessly behind Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the delegate count. Many Democrats and even some allies have said it is time for him to bow out — or at minimum articulate publicly why he wants to remain in the race.

But Mr. Sanders is still running, in large part, allies and aides say, because he believes he can meld this moment of national crisis with the progressive policy agenda that has been his life’s work.

“For someone who has built a career out of campaigning against the inequality of our health care system, this is prime time,” said Nick Carter, who served as political outreach director for the 2016 Sanders campaign.

So Mr. Sanders will take the stage when he can get it — including on the Senate floor Wednesday night, but also in news releases, radio and television interviews and live streams where he studiously repeats his mantra to loyalists who once crowded Iowa auditoriums to cheer him but now must settle for sometimes technologically challenged digital presentations.

It is unclear who exactly is listening or whether he can make a difference. Even Mr. Biden, as the likely Democratic nominee to face President Trump, has struggled to get visibility. Both candidates are being overshadowed by daily briefings from Mr. Trump and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York.

In an interview on Thursday with the radio program “1A,” Mr. Sanders did not say how long he intended to stay in the race but suggested he was not going anywhere soon. And he rebuffed a comparison to his 2016 campaign, when he fought Hillary Clinton to the bitter end, arguing that the coronavirus made the two situations different because many states this year had postponed their primaries.

“You’re talking about an election without elections,” he said. “What does that mean? It’s kind of unprecedented.”

His campaign says he is still actively running for president, and there is other concrete evidence he is. On Tuesday, his team confirmed that he planned to participate in an April debate with Mr. Biden if there is one. The Bern app, a proprietary smartphone app that the campaign uses to organize volunteers, still includes an option for supporters to send their networks a text message encouraging them to mail in ballots, according to an aide. Under phone bank event listings on his campaign website, volunteers are urged to “join campaign staff as we outreach our communities.”

But his campaign is not actively advertising on Facebook and has not made any significant television ad buys since March 12. He has not actively fund-raised for his campaign in over a week, though his campaign has used its extensive email list to raise money for charities to help people during the virus crisis. On Wednesday, his campaign sent an email to supporters asking them to sign a petition to help Amazon workers.

Some Democratic supporters of his have said it’s time to end his campaign, including Robert Reich, the former labor secretary. Other Democrats say that if he stays in, he should make clear his motivation and his goal.

“I’ve never seen Bernie as someone who is selfish, I’ve always thought of him as being an advocate for his cause,” Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, said in an interview. “If he stays in the race for no reason, that would be selfish.”

In conversations with aides and allies since March 17 — when stinging losses in three states left him with no realistic chance at winning the Democratic nomination — many said he viewed this as an extraordinary moment that not only demands the kind of political revolution he has championed since he was the mayor of Burlington, Vt., but also underscores why the country would have been better off if his liberal policy agenda was already in place.

Mr. Sanders has appeared eager to put himself front and center for his supporters, holding live stream events on the virus nearly every night and pushing out a long list of policy proposals to handle the outbreak that included providing every American with a check for $2,000 a month.

In a sign of his political influence, he threatened on Wednesday afternoon to hold up the economic stimulus bill if Republicans continued to fight unemployment benefits that they feared would be larger than some people’s wages — the reason for his sarcastic denunciations in the Senate chamber.

“While we do our best to address these crises, it is extremely important that we try to understand how we got to where we are today, and the need to bring about fundamental reform of American society,” Mr. Sanders said during a live stream event on Wednesday night, after running viewers through major elements of the stimulus bill.

Many of his supporters are still holding out faint hope that he can win the nomination, arguing that the coronavirus outbreak has made even unlikely scenarios possible. Already, many states have pushed their primaries back to June 2, making it impossible for Mr. Biden to clinch the nomination before then. There are murmurs among some allies that Mr. Sanders intends to stay in at least until the primary in New York, which is scheduled for April 28 but could be pushed back to June 23.

Some want him to stay in the race indefinitely because his candidacy provides him the megaphone to shape the narrative of the progressive agenda, and will give him leverage as he seeks policy concessions from Mr. Biden and influence over the party’s platform.

Some close to him suggested that his coronavirus outreach was a way to keep his supporters motivated and engaged during this strange time of suspended animation, so that the campaign can jump-start them into action if he decides to rev his candidacy back up.

His detractors, however, point out that he has chosen to hold his own events and speak to his own supporters but until Wednesday had largely left the congressional proceedings to others — including his former rival Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was active in helping to shape the rescue bill. On Sunday, when fellow Senate Democrats blocked an action on the bill that delayed progress, he skipped the vote, instead remaining in Burlington to air a live stream with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

Some aides said he chose not to fly to Washington for the vote because its outcome was never in doubt. But others close to him professed confusion that he had passed up even a symbolic opportunity to offer his voice in the midst of a national emergency.

As Mr. Sanders continues to mull his campaign’s future, few aides are willing to so much as speculate what he will decide to do. When he returned to Burlington last week, none of his closest advisers went with him. Neither Jeff Weaver, a top adviser, nor his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, has responded to interview requests for days.

“I’m officially declining to comment,” Mr. Shakir said in a text message on Thursday. “Feel free to use that if you’d like.”

Mr. Sanders, in the meantime, has said more than once — including during Thursday’s radio interview — that he is winning the generational and ideological debate. And he seems ready to carry the debate forward. Only he knows for how long.

Stephanie Saul and Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.