The political lesson of Super Bowl 47


Seven years feels like a long time ago, in some ways. For example, my newly 21 year-old daughter was still in elementary school early in 2013. So much has come and gone in her life (and in all our lives) that it’s sometimes hard to remember what happened, much less learn any lessons from those events.

But Patrick Henry, in his barnburning speech that ended with the immortal phrase “Give me liberty or give me death!” said that he has one way of guiding his actions, which is through the experiences of the past. So something that happened seven years ago can still be instructive, if one accepts Henry’s premise to be correct.

In the long-ago days of the second Obama administration, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens faced off in Super Bowl 47 (I dispensed with the pretentious use of Roman numerals, in favor of just getting the idea out into the world. If you need to know it, the Roman numeral is on the patch on Colin Kapernick’s jersey above).

Early in the third quarter of that game, Baltimore held a seemingly comfortable lead of 28-6. In other words, three touchdowns by the 49ers, and then three extra point conversions, wouldn’t have been enough to catch up to the Ravens at that point. It looked bad for the 49ers, but there was still a lot of football left to be played.

And then the lights went out.

For a full half hour, America watched dumbfounded as the New Orleans Superdome sat in the dark. Some emergency generators restored some lighting, but nowhere near enough to return to playing football. It was simply a matter of waiting through the delay, as long as it lasted, and then continuing from the point of interruption.

Nobody would have seriously suggested calling off the remainder of the game, owing to the Ravens’ large lead at the time. There was too much money at stake, for the network airing the game, for the casinos who had wagers riding on the outcome of the game, and for the NFL itself, which was well aware of how baseball shot itself in the foot by cancelling the 2002 All-Star game while it was still in progress. In other words, cancelling the game early in the third quarter was never a real possibility.

When the game resumed, San Francisco began a furious comeback, led by now-exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. His 15-yard touchdown run, which still stands as the longest touchdown run by a quarterback in any Super Bowl, brought his team to within two points of the lead, and the 49ers even had a chance to take the lead in the game’s final minutes. They came up short in the end, but the exciting comeback mounted by the 49ers was proof that “it ain’t over til it’s over.”

When it comes to the 2020 presidential election, and the one chance we’ll have to end the Trump presidency through the levers of democracy, this moment feels a lot like the power outage in that Super Bowl. Joe Biden is ahead in terms of pledged delegates at the moment, and he’s like the Baltimore Ravens of old. The 49ers were the ones in a hole, and it didn’t look good for them to overtake the Ravens, just as it now looks like Bernie Sanders is on the ropes and hoping for a miracle comeback.

But the calls that are now being made for Sanders to drop out of the race, and for the opposition to align behind Joe Biden in anticipation of the November election, are both foolish and misguided. There are still 22 states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, that have not cast their ballots in the primaries. I can’t imagine that those states, which collectively represent more than 200 electoral votes, want to have their voices taken away, which would be the result of a Sanders withdrawal.

What message does it send for the fall campaign to effectively tell 22 states that their input is not important at this time? The struggle against COVID-19 is an existential problem, and I understand that, but don’t silence the voters in places like New York and New Jersey. Yes, those states are likely to go blue in November. But Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—two states the Dems must win to recapture the White House—just might hold a grudge if a Joe Biden coronation happens without their input.

Bernie Sanders has said that he sees a “narrow” path to winning the nomination. He’s survived a heart attack already in this campaign season, and he has to know this is the last chance he’s going to have at putting his progressive views before the voters. The Democrats who want to push him aside aren’t helping Joe Biden at all, because Bernie’s voters are going to have to show up, whether to support Bernie or Biden, in order to deny Trump a second term in office.

Simply put, alienating Bernie’s voters now would carry a political cost in November that Joe Biden cannot afford to pay, if he hopes to become more than the Democratic presidential nominee.

Just as the Super Bowl played out to its conclusion in 2013, so too must this year’s Democratic primary race play itself out until the winner is determined. The COVID-19 timeout that the nation is experiencing right now does not change the fact that the game’s third quarter has only just begun. Everybody loves a comeback, unless you’re the guy who’s desperately trying to protect a lead. And in 2020, that guy’s name is Joe Biden.

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