Sunday, March 8, 2020

Weekend Roundup

The Democratic presidential primary took a dramatic turn over the last ten days. The relevant event sequence:

  1. Joe Biden became the immediate favorite when he announced his run for president. His polls held relatively solid well into last fall, when he started to lose ground in the intensely contested bellwether states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
  2. About the same time, Bernie Sanders caught up and passed Elizabeth Warren in the polls, becoming the main challenger to Biden, and more generally to the Democratic Party establishment.
  3. As Biden began to fail, billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg entered the race, as did Deval Patrick. The latter had no traction, but Steyer spent $100 million to make a splash in Nevada and South Carolina, and Bloomberg $500 million on Super Tuesday states. All that advertising money didn't help them much as candidates (Steyer finished 5th in Nevada and 3rd in South Carolina; Bloomberg's sole Super Tuesday win was in American Samoa, where Tulsi Gabbard finished second), but they defined issues that ultimately helped Biden.
  4. Sanders won the popular vote in Iowa, increased his margin in New Hampshire, and won a very solid margin in Nevada. Meanwhile, Biden had faltered badly in Iowa (4th place in first-round voting, 14.9%) and in New Hampshire (5th place, 8.4%). Sanders pulled ahead of Biden in national polls for the first time, and was widely considered to be the front-runner in the race.
  5. With the "threat" of Sanders firmly established, and Bloomberg pretty severely hobbled in his first debate performance, panic ensued among mainstream Democrats. They lashed out frantically at Sanders, but cooler heads realized that Biden was their most viable alternative, and they organized a raft of endorsements and money to inject into his struggling campaign. He had always polled better in South Carolina than any other "early state" -- and his most effective "moderate" opponents (Buttigieg, Klobuchar) had never had any organization or appeal there, so it's not like they had any other options.
  6. Following an endorsement by Rep. Jim Clyburn, Biden bounced back with a very strong showing in South Carolina -- not as high as he had polled for most of 2019, but stronger than most of us expected.
  7. Biden's South Carolina win became a signal for Democratic Party regulars to unite behind him, against Sanders (and Warren, who helped split the progressive vote). Steyer, Steyer, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar ended their campaigns, the latter two endorsing Biden.
  8. Biden won big on Super Tuesday, winning 10 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) vs. 4 for Sanders (California, Colorado, Utah, Vermont). See breakdown below.
  9. After Super Tuesday, Bloomberg withdrew and endorsed Biden. He also promised to keep his campaign organizations active, redirected at supporting Biden, so in effect he's running a huge pro-Biden PAC. [PS: This opens him to charges like: Fox's Ingraham Angle labels Michael Bloomberg a "puppet master".]
  10. Warren also withdrew, without making an endorsement. She has, however, spent most of the week bad-mouthing Sanders supporters for their alleged misbehavior toward her campaign.

I imagine someone will eventually emerge claiming to be the genius behind Biden's transformation, but it's possible there's no conspiracy here. It's not that I can't identify actors or linkages -- you can be pretty certain that when David Brooks wrote his "never Bernie" column or when James Carville crawled out from under his rock to declare that nominating Bernie would be insanity that there were people (and money) behind the scenes pushing them forward. To my mind, the most suspicious sign was Harry Reid's endorsement of Biden only after the Nevada caucus, where he might have had an effect similar to Jim Clyburn's in South Carolina. Sanders' big Nevada win both drove his enemies together and set up expectations that made Biden's South Carolina win look even more impressive.

One lesson from this is that Sanders' appeal is limited, mostly to people who understand his key issues -- a trait he shares with Warren, although until now, one could imagine him not being so limited by it. Also, that he is not immune from media attacks, which have accelerated to new heights recently, and that seems to have scared many people into looking for a safer choice. Why Biden should be that choice isn't very clear, other than that he's the only one unlikely to get shafted by the people who've run the Democratic Party into the ground since the 1970s. Even people who substantively agree with Sanders, and who respect and admire him, have non unreasonable fears that the money people behind the party will do anything to undermine him (a faction that Bloomberg gave an explicit face to), even if that results in Trump winning a second term.

There are a lot of Democrats who only have one real concern in 2020: who can beat Trump? Biden has never seemed like a very solid answer to that question, but if you can't have someone progressive, at least he seems less limited than Bloomberg, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar. He has a long record of going along with whatever the party wanted -- be it wars, free trade deals, favors to the big banks -- without ever picking up the scent of ideology. He represents continuity with the Clintons and Obama, but wasn't necessarily culpable for their failures. He can still feign an emotional attachment to the working class, even though in the end he always winds up siding with the moneyed interests. He comes off as a cipher you can project your hopes onto. He is, for instance, the favorite candidate both of blacks and of culturally conservative whites (the kind most likely to be racists). The South has a lot of both, and that's where he cleaned up on Super Tuesday.

The weak link in Biden's campaign is Biden himself. He's 77, looks fit for that age, but it's easy to find clips where his mind wanders and his mouth goes elsewhere. He failed miserably in the first two contests this year, where voters have a year or more to check the candidates out up close. On the other hand, he won several states on Super Tuesday where he never appeared, and didn't have much if any campaign presence. He has a long record with a lot of dubious votes and speeches, and he'll get a lot of flack over that record. It is far from certain that he can withstand the intense scrutiny that a presidential campaign will entail. Sanders is unlikely to go beyond Biden's political record, but expect the Republicans to be ruthless not just at picking apart Biden's weaknesses but on inventing things from whole cloth. His mental agility, such as it is, will be tested severely.

Sanders will continue to contest the nomination. As Yglesias points out (see below), next month's primaries present some rough challenges for Sanders, and he is playing catch up now, in a process which is biased (if not necessarily rigged) against him. He has gained one big thing from Super Tuesday: he now has a single opponent to define himself against. He needs to do three things viz. Biden: he needs to emphasize the moderation of his views and ingratiate himself with the main current of the Democratic Party (which, issue-wise, is now well to the left of Biden's record, although it's important to make those positions less threatening and more intuitively reasonable); he needs to expose Biden's dangerous incompetency, and the risks the Party is taking in entrusting him with the nomination; and he needs to convince voters that he can be much more effective than Biden at standing up to Trump.

That may be a tall order, but I for one am already convinced on all three counts. The challenge will be in making those points resonate with less informed voters, and in effectively dodging the flak that the media will hurl at him, based on prejudices that are already ingrained.

When I started thinking about what to say this week, I came up with three possible scenarios for Elizabeth Warren. She's since taken one of those off the table, so I won't belabor it, but simply note that had she stayed in the race, she would have needed to do two things. The most obvious one is to attack Biden's personal competency (while respecting, if not necessarily agreeing with, "moderate" positions). The other is that she would need to catapult herself to the front of Bernie's movement, usurping his positions but arguing that she would be more effective at implementing them. The hope would be that after the near-death experience of Super Tuesday, Bernie's supporters may be more open to her taking charge, especially if she proves herself the more effective opponent to Biden. She could even wind up making Bernie her VP. Of course, this would have been difficult to pull off, and she wouldn't have much time, especially for the period when she is dividing the progressive vote. But she was pretty effective at knocking Bloomberg off his chariot, and she could go after Biden more directly than 78-year-old Bernie.

Her other choices were to quite the race (as she's done) and pitch herself to be VP either under Bernie or Biden. She could conceivably be very effective in that role. The problem with going with Bernie is that it's an uphill fight. The question with the latter is whether Biden thinks he needs her that much (after all, many Biden backers hate her as much as they fear and loathe Sanders). The plus side is that it would end the primary process almost immediately, limiting the risk that Bernie might expose Biden's ineptitude. Besides, VPs are historically insignificant (but given Biden's age and problems and Warren's vigor, she could take advantage of the role).

Note that Bernie Sanders says he will drop out if Biden gets plurality coming into Dem convention. He's argued that Biden should do much the same thing if Sanders is leading going into the convention, but with his reserve of unelected second-round delegates, Biden hasn't agreed. This anticipates a graceful exit if his campaign can't rebound in the couple months remaining. I can't blame Bernie if Democrats prefer to go with Biden and his long record of indifference and failure. Greg Magarian commented in Facebook on the article:

Bernie Sanders promises to make the nomination of Joe Biden painless if the moderate is leading come July. He says Elizabeth Warren deserves time and space to decide her own path forward. He won't run on a unity ticket with Biden because two old white guys is at least one too many.

If you've been swallowing, or parroting, the tired narrative that Sanders is nothing but a crazy, misogynistic ideologue who constantly trashes the party and only cares about himself, I respectfully suggest that you listen to what the man says -- all of it, not just the pieces that fit your ingrained narrative. He's an exceptionally decent politician, with plenty of flaws, who's in this to help people.

Elsewhere in my Facebook feed are a bunch of diatribes against Sanders, some complaining about his "arrogance" (for running in the first place?), many more explicitly aimed at his supporters, accusing us of all sorts of vile behavior. I try not to take this personally, but after repeated slanders it's hard not to feel some solidarity with the victims. Sure, maybe some people say some things that are ill-advised. I'll even admit that I can say some disrespectful and even hurtful things about politicians I seriously disagree with, but I usually try to focus on issues and rarely project my critiques onto ordinary people who merely happen to favor someone I don't. The most famous recent case of a campaign generalizing about its opponent's followers was Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables," and that proved to be bad politics as well as a gross generalization. She was, of course, talking about Trump supporters, who by definition are at least willing to tolerate one of the most hateful, corrupt, and dishonest campaigns in US history, but even so, calling people names just turns them off and estranges them further. I'm sick and tired of being called names by partisans of Democratic candidates who themselves have little to offer and not enough self-consciousness to recognize their own past failures.

Of course, in addition to the name-calling every now and then you have to fend off some plain old faulty logic. For example:

If money is everything in politics, why is Biden, who has recently spent so little compared to other candidates, doing so well? Well, you can say it's all those "elites" and secret oligarchs, but I don't buy it (no pun intended).

Start with a faulty premise (money isn't everything in politics) and pile on other misleading and spurious claims. Biden started with name recognition, credibility, and long-standing political links -- things that even with incredible amounts of spending Bloomberg and Steyer were unable to buy in such a short time, things that even more legitimate politicians like Klobuchar and Buttigieg were unable to compete with. So when the election pivoted to becoming a race to stop Sanders, the choice who benefited most was the obvious one, Biden. On the other hand, do you really think that Biden, who can barely put together two coherent sentences in a row, was brilliant enough to pull this off? You don't have to be very conspiracy-oriented to suspect that there are "elites" and oligarchs lurking in the background, pulling on the various strings that orchestrated this turnaround. After all, we live in a world where these sorts of things happen all the time. And that doesn't necessarily mean they have Biden in their pocket, but he is the beneficiary of their machinations, and if he does get elected, he will very likely wind up paying for their favors.

The Super Tuesday breakdown by state (delegates in parens, vote if 5% or more):

  • Alabama: Biden 63.3% (44), Sanders 16.5% (8), Bloomberg 11.7%, Warren 5.7%.
  • Arkansas: Biden 40.5% (17), Sanders 22.4% (9), Bloomberg 16.7% (5), Warren 10.0%.
  • California: Sanders 33.7% (186), Biden 26.4% (148), Bloomberg (13.6% (15), Warren 12.7% (5), Buttigieg (5.6%).
  • Colorado: Sanders 36.1% (20), Biden 23.6% (10), Bloomberg 20.5% (9), Warren 17.3% (1).
  • Maine: Biden 34.1% (11), Sanders 32.9% (9), Warren 15.7% (4), Bloomberg 12.0%.
  • Massachusetts: Biden 33.6% (37), Sanders 26.7% (29), Warren 21.4% (25), Bloomberg 11.8%.
  • Minnesota: Biden 38.6% (38), Sanders 29.9% (27), Warren 15.4% (10), Bloomberg 8.3%, Klobuchar 5.6%.
  • North Carolina: Biden 43.0% (67), Sanders 24.1% (37), Bloomberg 13.0% (4), Warren 10.5% (2).
  • Oklahoma: Biden 38.7% (21), Sanders 25.4% (13), Bloomberg 13.9% (2), Warren 13.4% (1).
  • Tennessee: Biden 41.7% (33), Sanders 25.0% (19), Bloomberg 15.5% (10), Warren 10.4% (1).
  • Texas: Biden 34.5% (111), Sanders 30.0% (102), Bloomberg 14.4% (10), Warren 11.4% (5).
  • Utah: Sanders 34.6% (12), Biden 17.4% (2), Bloomberg 16.7% (2), Warren 15.5%, Buttigieg 9.8%.
  • Vermont: Sanders 50.8% (11), Biden 22.0% (5), Warren 12.6%, Bloomberg 9.4%.
  • Virginia: Biden 53.2% (66), Sanders 23.1% (31), Warren 10.7% (2), Bloomberg 9.8%.

Some scattered links this week:

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