I have remarked many times that Donald Trump's nomination and election could only have happened thanks to a collapse of our political system. Neither of our two major parties could come up with a candidate who could defeat a serial bankrupt and reality tv star who obviously lacked the knowledge and the managerial skills necessary to be President. Had the Republican Party still possessed some sort of national organization, it would surely have unified around one candidate, and if the party had retained real links with its voters, that candidate could have defeated Trump. Unfortunately, a similar story may be playing out among the Democrats this year.
If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how much I value my right to say what I think. Truth is truth, no matter what it says about particular political parties, individuals, or institutions (like the press.) And truth, I think, should be an asset, not a disability, in the kind of crisis we are now going through. Some readers will feel that a good Democrat (such as I certainly feel myself to be) owes it to the party and the nation to be upbeat about the current situation and the chances of one of our candidates. While I'm certainly going to vote for any Democratic candidate against Trump in November, I think that the emerging field says a lot about the sad state of my party and our political system, and I can't keep my mouth shut about that.
Joe Biden not only remains the front runner, but has widened his lead in recent weeks. The RealClearPolitics poll average shows him with 28% of the vote, a full 10 points higher than his next rival Bernie Sanders, and only 5-6 points behind Sanders and third-place Elizabeth Warren combined. How did Joe Biden achieve the stature of front-runner? In the same way that Richard Nixon (1960) and George H. W. Bush (1988) did among the Republicans, and Hubert Humphrey (1968), Walter Mondale (1984), and Al Gore (2000) did among Democrats: by serving as Vice President of the United States, which gave them national name recognition and access to Democratic donors. Except for Nixon and Mondale, every one of these men--like Biden--had also run for President before becoming Vice President, and none of their campaigns had gotten anywhere. Only one of those five men, Bush, was elected, although Gore had the presidency taken away from him by the Supreme Court, partly because of his own fatally flawed strategy in the Florida recount controversy. Biden is of course one of the oldest major candidates ever at 77, and he has always been loose cannon on the stump. He has loyal support from older and blacker Democrats but very little from younger ones--and many of the black Democrats who may win him the nomination live and vote in states that the Democrats have no chance of carrying in November.
Bernie Sanders's whole remarkable career as a presidential aspirant testifies to the residual strength of our democracy. He came out of nowhere four years ago and won some key primaries, but couldn't overcome the structural advantages of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose service as first lady had played the same role in her career as the vice-presidency had in Biden's and others'. He clearly stands for the average American, and his personality has convinced millions of Americans that he honestly speaks his mind and doesn't fear anyone. He, however, will be 79 by next November, and he just suffered a heart attack. More importantly, he represents a type familiar in American history, one that contributes importantly to progressive politics but rarely reaches the top. The type included many of the more famous leaders of the Progressive era, who were identified, and brilliantly characterized, by the Washington journalists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, in their anonymous classic, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, which earned them fortune and fame when they published it in 1932. They called them the Senate Insurgents, among whom they identified George Norris of Nebraska, young Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin (who had essentially inherited his Senate seat from his father), William Borah of Idaho, Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, and others. "The Senate insurgents," they wrote, "are the strongest and weakest element in American national affairs.
"Individually they are the strongest.
"Collectively they are the weakest.
"Individually they are the most righteous and forward-looking men in public office in the capital. They are sincere, law-abiding, and intelligent. Collectively they have been without plan or purpose, unorganized and ineffectual. . ."
Herbert Hoover, Pearson and Allen noted, had recently coined the phrase "rugged individualism." Certainly he had not intended it to describe these men, but Pearson and Allen thought it fit them perfectly--as it surely does Bernie Sanders as well. "They personify all the noble qualities of character he implied when he used that pat phrase.
"And just as completely they demonstrate the pathetic and utter inadequacy of individuals, no matter how admirable, to cope with the colossal economic and political problems of the present day as long as they are nothing more than individuals persisting in an individualist philosophy. . . .Against the might and unified power of national and international capitalism they have had nothing to offer but their own individual forthrightness."
Like so many of the insurgents of another era, Bernie Sanders represents a small and rural state. He has all the courage of his convictions that one could wish for and he has an acute sense of what is wrong with America. Yet he was not even part of a recognizable faction in the Senate and has very little legislative record. His independence--including his refusal even to be formally identified as a Democrat--has helped win him a devoted following among liberal and younger Americans. I voted for him in my primary in 2016 and I wish he could have been the candidate, but he has many vulnerabilities going into a general election this year and I have no idea if he would be an effective President.
Elizabeth Warren is both my Senator and my candidate, as I informed a telephone pollster just the other night. (Interestingly enough, I could not bring myself to give an opinion about the Senate primary pitting another septuagenarian, Ed Markey, against young Joe Kennedy, but that's another story.) Like Sanders and myself, she has genuine New Deal values. Bernie and I learned them in our youth; she, interestingly enough, appears to have come to them much later as a result of her work as a bankruptcy lawyer. She did create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, at least in theory an important new regulatory body, under the Obama Administration. But as a recent article showed, that was a very uphill battle, fought against the real policy titans of the early Obama years, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. Typically, Obama himself, while blessing the idea, gave in to her opponents and refused to appoint her to head the bureau. Now the bureau has been gutted by the first Republican administration to have taken office. Similarly, Warren has now had to back away from Medicare for All, the only real solution to our health care crisis, because it lacks enough of a constituency in the country or even in the Democratic Party. And she too is in her eighth decade, and her candidacy would have to deal with anti-elitist prejudice and sexism around the country. Her career, like Sanders's, would have fit easily into Pearson and Allen's discussion of the Senate insurgents in 1931. Were the Democratic left truly organized, it seems to me, the Sanders and Warren forces would be planning to coalesce around one candidate, but I see no evidence that that is happening.
Pete Buttigieg, who currently polls at 9.2% nationally but ranks first in Iowa and second in New Hampshire. He represents the Millennial generation. Like Barack Obama, he is a bright young man who has eagerly jumped through every hoop that society has put up in front of him, from Harvard to Oxford to the U.S. military, and like Obama and Hillary Clinton, he has excited some voters because he would be the first representative of a particular demographic to occupy the White House. Among elite Democrats that is a recommendation, but it has not necessarily proven to be so in the country at large. A close friend recently wondered with me whether the nation was ready for the image of Buttigieg and his husband on the podium on the last night of the Democratic national convention. I don't think that he really has much chance of being nominated, and I would not be confident of his chances against Donald Trump if he were.
Traditional politics sought candidates with an impressive record in public service, whose demographic matched the great bulk of the American people, whose age was somewhere between 45 and 60, and who came from an electorally important state. None of the top four Democrats fit that mold, and Democrats who came closer to it, such as Mitch Landrieu, Sherrod Brown, and Beto O'Rourke, either declined to run or flamed out early. No governing political intelligence, it seems to me, now plays a major role in our nominating process. Donald Trump remains deeply unpopular, but it is not clear that the Democratic Party will come up with a candidate who can take sufficient advantage of that to defeat him.