Establishment! Establishment! You Always Know What’s Best!

Full disclosure: after the Nevada caucus but before the South Carolina primary, I started writing a post about how hard it would be for the fractured Democratic moderates to stop Bernie Sanders’ momentum in time to deny him a delegate plurality. So you can see what my predictions are worth (though to be fair, I said, “hard,” not “impossible”). As it turned out, despite what I and others were saying, there was time for the moderates to unify before Super Tuesday; there wasn’t time for Sanders to develop a strategy to respond to that unification. In any case, I don’t know that such a strategy was possible, or that the Sanders campaign was well-positioned to develop one.

It’s not over yet, of course. Prematurely declaring victory was part of the Sanders’ campaign’s error in the first place, to a point where, post-Nevada, they jumped ahead to provoking debates about what would happen if Sanders had a delegate plurality but not an outright majority, skipping the step where he actually built up that plurality. There are still plenty of delegates up for grabs; Sanders could come back again. But it would take some lopsided victories, and he would have to overcome the demographic trends that doomed his campaign in 2016 and are behind his recent reversal of fortune. That’s a steep hill to climb for someone so strongly committed to a very particular conception of political right and wrong. The devotion to principle that makes Sanders appealing to his core supporters also makes it difficult for him to do what any losing politician needs to do: change the record.

On today’s episode of This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Sanders talked about “the establishment” and how it “force[d]” Buttigieg and Klobuchar out of the race. It’s this reliance on overheated and (frankly) unintelligent rhetoric about the operation of power that makes it hard for me to feel anything like enthusiasm for Sanders, even though his positions on the issues align closely with my own. Buttigieg and Klobuchar were dead in the water nationally. They benefited, as did Sanders, from the first two contests being held in the fourth- and fifth-whitest states in the country, but their peak performances in national polling were 13% and 9% respectively. All they could hope to do by remaining in the race was decrease the likelihood of anyone getting a majority of pledged delegates. That was the outcome Sanders was banking on, but it wasn’t in anyone else’s interest anymore, with the possible exception of Warren. Everyone else was jockeying to be the moderate alternative to Sanders. Biden getting nearly 50% of the vote in a seven candidate race in South Carolina made it clear that he was in the best position to do that, so they dropped out and endorsed him. Was there some wheeling and dealing behind the scenes? Probably. Outside the world of politics, we call those things “compromises” and recognize them as part of doing your job effectively. It’s only in a particular brand of leftist commentary that any concession to the reality on the ground is a moral failing.

Sanders and his campaign do themselves a grave disservice by using anti-establishment rhetoric to distract from their inability to secure majorities among actual voters. A candidate who claims the ability to ignite a political revolution by inspiring non-voters in huge numbers should be the one benefiting from increased turnout, and that’s not the case. But it was explicitly the plan for him to win with about 30% of the vote, so it’s not surprising that his most vocal supporters have no strategy to get much more than that. Blaming Elizabeth Warren for not dropping out before Super Tuesday is not a strategy, especially since what evidence there is suggests that her supporters are evenly split between Sanders and Biden. (I’m sure that’s difficult for people who vote primarily on policy to believe, but the average voter doesn’t weigh policy as heavily as some of us do.) Talking about how Biden is terrible and probably has dementia and will lose to Trump is also not a strategy, especially since it invites questions (then why can’t Sanders convince people to vote for him instead? didn’t Sanders have a heart attack less than six months ago, about which he has declined to release pertinent medical information? where is the evidence Sanders will perform better against Trump?) for which there are no easy answers.

I have to confess a certain frustration that the Democratic primary has come to this: a contest between two white men in their late seventies, each with obvious liabilities as a campaigner, neither, to my mind, likely to make an especially effective executive if elected. I would have preferred just about any other final two you could construct out of the major candidates. But that’s the nature of politics: your preferred candidate isn’t always going to win. You’re not always going to feel tingly about your nominee. There will always be setbacks. But you keep going.

What worries me most about recent events is that a certain type of Sanders supporter seems essentially to have given up: their commentary now amounts to, “fine, pick Biden, he’ll lose to Trump and we’re all doomed.” That’s not how you bring change. You support who you think is the best candidate as vocally as you can until the race is over, and then you move on to the next contest, picking the best candidate there and giving it all you’ve got. And so on. You fight. I’m terrified of what will happen if the Democratic nominee loses to Trump in November. Every Democrat should be (and so should most Republicans, but they’re not going to realize that until it’s too late). But even if the worst happens on November 3, there will still be work to be done on November 4, to make the things we’re afraid of as unlikely as possible. And if the best happens, if Democrats reclaim control of the White House and both houses of Congress and start to enact a progressive agenda, there will still be work to be done then too. If you only pay attention to politics when someone who really excites you is in the race, you’re never going to bring about the change you and you candidate say you want.


One thought on “Establishment! Establishment! You Always Know What’s Best!

  1. I’m not excited that the Democratic race has come down to two men my father’s age. But it is how it shook out.

    An episode of Vox’s Ezra Klein Show podcast last week, on how Sanders and Biden would govern and what their differences would be, covered a lot of the points you bring up here. Sanders’ 30% strategy comes in for some criticism; it’s a valid and winning strategy when there are eight or nine candidates all vying for votes, but it relies on candidates staying in the race to split the vote, and it’s not going to win when the number of opponents drops down to two — or one — and Sanders is still only pulling 30%.

    Sanders can still win, of course, but he needs to reboot his campaign and figure out how to reach Democratic voters in that 70%, and he needs to do it fast.

    One thing I wish both men would do, given their age, is pick Vice Presidential candidates. I don’t see either man running for reelection in 2024, so picking now would send a message to primary voters about their vision of the future of the Democratic Party and, frankly, their heir apparent in the event they don’t make it to 2024.


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