Now that Bernie Sanders has been rebuffed and a credible centrist path forward has been laid for Democratic voters, I just want to say: 1) Don’t think for a minute there is anything inevitable about Joe Biden’s nomination; 2) I’m all in for whoever earns that nomination; and 3) I have real reservations about propping up today’s Democratic Party beyond Nov. 3.
Clearly, the only sensible thing for Democrats to do over the next four months is go get the vote out. In such hyper-polarized times, this makes more sense than you may realize. More on that in a moment.
Because a funny thing happened on the way to this new, hastily constructed Biden consensus: In the 3 weeks between the N.H. Primary and Super Tuesday, I along with millions of left-leaning Americans were all obliged to come to terms with the idea of Bernie Sanders leading us into the arena against Trump.
We did this for several reasons. Biden on the stump in 2020 is rather corpse-like (with a verbal dexterity to match); Bernie had dominated him and the other centrists in the field. Following the victory in Nevada, Bernie was clearly the front-runner. Suddenly, in the space of 3 weeks, it had all become very real.
The last Republican I voted for was Bill Weld (when he ran for Massachusetts governor in 1990), a fact that doesn’t make me a liberal firebrand. I never voted for Nader, nor any Green candidates. Obama was probably more cautiously centrist than I’d have liked. But I did vote for Sanders during Tuesday’s Maine primary. Having rationally gone through his platform — over and over again, often beside scandalized centrists in need of reassurance — I did come to terms with the good sense it largely represents. The polls that show him faring as well or better vs. Trump in November didn’t hurt.
It tickles me to hear moderate Dems and conservatives (who have resisted the snake-oil charms of our president) detail their fear of and disdain for the “crazy left-wing” ideas advocated by Sen. Sanders. “Wacky” is another word they use. When pressed for examples, Medicare for All always heads the list — despite the fact that expansion of this existing U.S. program is essentially the operative model for nationalized healthcare systems in every industrialized nation on Earth but ours. Mind you, these are models that all deliver care for less cost per citizen than the private system now deployed here. In other words, not crazy.
[Free public college education usually comes next: “Another socialist fantasy!” Oh yeah? From 1945 to 1980, this country essentially had a public university and community college system that was so affordable as to verge on free. Tuition was so minimal it could be dispatched via summer jobs and winter-spring vacation gigs — that is, until we made the conscious, Reagan-enabled decision to stop socializing the cost of such things. Today, a year at UMass costs $30,000. “Oh, and you’re just gonna forgive all that student debt I suppose?” Yeah, I would. It’s crippling the middle-class striving of 70 million Millennials. And seeing as colleges (for-profit and otherwise) cynically pocketed all those Pell Grant billions, leaving these consumers holding the bag, some manner of redress is warranted. The Green New Deal? Yeah, it’s such a whack-job, pinko fantasy that the European Union — a common market representing 300 million consumers — just this week declared a target of net-zero carbon by 2050 and halving emissions by 2030. The outcry there? It’s not aggressive enough. Bernie’s agenda is typical of centrist and center-left governments across the industrialized world in Europe and Asia. Three weeks of coming to terms with his front-runner status made this plain. Not. Wacky. At. All.]
Yet something else happened when I walked through all this, over and over again, trying to explain how electing Bernie Sanders wouldn’t destroy the Democratic Party and this country: I questioned anew what it was about the Democratic Party in 2020 that was so worth preserving.
Bill Clinton changed the Party in the 1990s, of course. Thirty years on, I frankly do not care for the Democratic Leadership Council ideal, i.e. the moving of an entire party to the center so it might better compete for Wall Street, fossil fuel and otherwise corporate dollars. I get it: It was good for the Party. I just don’t like the way this move abandoned an already flagging union movement, which only advanced the hollowing out of middle-class wages in this country. I don’t like the way DLC Dems turned on the poor and otherwise marginalized with their repudiation of “welfare as we know it”, with their zeal for mandatory sentencing, for-profit prisons and the war on drugs. I resent their silent assents re. right-wing tax policy and military adventurism.
All this was done to win elections and wield power for the left, presumably. But what did it get us?
• A party that couldn’t parlay those two, prosperous Clinton terms into a victory over George W. Bush in 2000;
• A party that voted pretty much in lockstep to invade Iraq;
• A party so in thrall to its new banking friends that it wouldn’t listen to people like Elizabeth Warren before or after the 2008 crisis;
• A party led by a House speaker who turned 80 in March and a Senate minority leader who is 69 and addicted to upscale cheesecake apparently;
• A party that initially opposed Barack Obama, then stood idly by for 8 years while the Senate, House and dozens of governorships turned increasingly red;
• A party so determined to nominate Hillary Clinton in 2016 that it saw no need to develop or otherwise groom other potential nominees or figures of stature from 2012 forward;
• A party that despite the GOP setting an example right before its eyes has been completely outmaneuvered over the course of 30 years in terms of identification and placement of liberal judges, to the point where any Democratic president or Congress going forward will be inhibited from enacting any sort of liberal agenda and making it stick.
I’m no Bernie Bro. Far from it. But this is what the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is thinking this morning as it ponders the idea of uniting behind a centrist candidate through November.
The question isn’t whether a nominee like Bernie Sanders would utterly destroy/transform the Democratic Party. The question is, Would that, on the evidence available, be such a terrible thing? Political parties in this country are not governmental entities. They are private entities; they often act in their own self-interest. Biden, who may well represent the best path to victory in November, is clearly a creature of that self-interest.
For proof of that, read Tom Friedman’s “Super Wednesday” column in The New York Times. This bit of centrist cheerleading gave me real pause. He wrote, “First, if your party doesn’t have an awesome presidential candidate — and the Democrats don’t in this election — then your party better have an awesome coalition. That means a party that is united as much as possible — from left to center to right — so it can bolster the nominee against what will be a vicious, united and well-funded Trump/G.O.P. campaign. It’s going to take a village to defeat Trump.Second, if that Democratic candidate is Bernie Sanders — that is, if the Democrats nominate a left-wing populist like Sanders to run against a right-wing populist like Donald Trump — Sanders might win, but there’s zero possibility that he’d get anything done with his uncompromising ‘democratic socialist’ ideas.”
Unity represents the reasonable path to follow through November. But you don’t assemble a village, Tom, by dispatching with the core ideals of your coalition-mates, whose bedrock beliefs, to restate, are not the product of some democratic-socialist fantasy (even if your banker friends think so). There’s a reason every candidate on the Dem debate stage has a cover-everyone health care plan. If I were Stacey Abrams or Elizabeth Warren — both now being courted to run with Biden, thereby mollifying/uniting the left — I would have real misgivings about building a village with these people.
And if you think Bernie Sanders is going quietly in to the sweet March night, and Joe Biden is going to waltz his way all the way to Milwaukee (site of the Democratic convention this July), you’re crazy. Joe Biden was a gaffe machine in 1988, when there was color in his face. He doesn’t even have organizations in half the states he won on Tuesday. Now they’re talking about Mike Bloomberg funding Biden’s campaign… I can’t begin to predict what will happen to Biden between now and July — what he will say, whom he might touch inappropriately, whom he’s already touched inappropriately, what sort of health scare might have to be glossed over or covered up — but something will. As Carl Spackler warned, “I don’t think the heavy stuff will come down for quite a while.”
Another reason I’m wary of Friedman, the DNC and the Centrist Path Forward is Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. I’d never heard of her (or her Center) till I listened to that New Yorker podcast linked above. Then I researched her a bit more: This woman didn’t just call the 40-seat House swing prior to November 2018; she called all 535 races nearly on the nose! She actual called a 42-seat Democratic swing but cited a lack of DNC support/funding as the reason an additional two progressives lost.
Her thrust: In a polarized political environment like this one, it almost doesn’t matter who the Dem nominee is. Turnout is all important and luckily supporters of Sanders, Biden, Warren, Mayor Pete, Bloomberg and Klobuchar (pretty much everyone but the 15 non-bots backing Tulsi Gabbard) all loath Trump with the heat of a thousand suns. What’s more, Bitecofer explains that the oldest Millennials are 40 now, fully vested in the culture with jobs, kids, mortgages and all that student debt. They also happen to be the most left-leaning diverse cohort in the history of this country. Generation Z, next in the generational conga line, just happens to be even more diverse and left-leaning, though only a portion are currently of voting age. Combined, these two cohorts represent some 120 million potential voters.
If you’re wondering what to do with your lingering political ennui, with your free time between now and November — and like me you’re perhaps a bit put off by the DNC, by the leadership of yet another 70-something white guy — go join the nearest get-out-the-vote campaign. State, county, city or town: It doesn’t matter. We need to get the goddamned vote out.
Sanders admits that his campaign did not receive the support it needed from these younger cohorts last Tuesday. Even more reason to contact, cajole and register all the Millennials and Gen Z folks we can, plus anyone else whose votes the opponents are trying to suppress – because, you know, that’s wrong. These votes are the difference between winning and losing in November, no matter who leads the Democratic ticket.