Bernie Sanders has good reason to be pissed off. Three years ago, he ran against Hillary Clinton as the avatar of a rigged system. Clinton was the paragon of the Democrat establishment and had spent her career catering to Wall Street and the globalist agenda of corporate leaders. That is to say, she stood for everything Sanders has stood against. He may have swallowed his pride and endorsed Hillary’s candidacy, but deep inside he had to feel vindicated when Donald Trump, running against that same rigged system, won the day.
Today, at home and abroad, the United States as we long imagined it to be — the global leader of the alliance of advanced democracies — is in tatters, and for all the reasons Bernie predicted. All of the policies that he railed against over the years — free trade, outsourcing, financial deregulation, the wars — have come home to roost. While it is fashionable to blame Trump for all that ails us, he is a product of our decline and discontent rather than the cause. If one were to put names to the architects of our dysfunction, they would surely include Bush and Clinton, while harkening back to many who came before them.
The Georges Bush and Bill Clinton brought the world the entry of China into the World Trade Organization, financial deregulation, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While intended to promote freedom and democracy in China, and expand economic prosperity and opportunity across the globe, those actions, in turn, eroded the middle classes in the United States and Europe; laid the groundwork for a global financial collapse that eviscerated family savings, pensions and security; and led to the wave of immigration that is shaking the political stability of Europe. Not only has liberal democracy failed to make headway in Russia, China and the Arab world, but it is under severe assault across Europe and at home.
There is a reason that 20% of Bernie supporters polled recently indicated that they would vote for Trump rather than another Democrat, and it is the same reason that Bernie is pissed off. Everything he predicted has come true — free trade and financial deregulation turned out to be a disaster for many American workers — and yet once again Democrat voters appear to be turning to an establishmentarian centrist rather than him. Joe Biden is Hillary Clinton all over again: he voted for the wars, he is closely aligned with the banks, and he never met a trade deal he didn’t like. He’s just better at pitching the guys at the union hall and American Legion post.
That, however, is the point. Democrat optimism about the prospects of winning back the White House next year has ebbed. According to a CNN poll published this week, one-third of Democrats now believe that Trump is likely to win reelection next year, a share that has grown from just one-in-five six months ago. Among all voters, the CNN poll suggests that a majority of Americans now expect Trump to win a second term. Day after day, week after week, Trump reminds Democrats of what is at stake, and why this it not the year to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In the words of the Green Bay Packers legendary coach Vince Lombardi — for Democrats looking ahead to 2020, winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
Against that backdrop, it is little wonder that Joe Biden continues to double up Bernie in the national polls — somewhere in the range of 35% to 18% — with no one else breaking out of single digits. Biden is widely viewed as capable of beating Trump in a national context, a view that was given more credence by a Texas Q Poll published this week showing Biden beating Trump head-to-head in Texas by four points, with Trump beating each of the other Democrat candidates named. Additionally, according to the most recent national Q Poll, among the prospective Democrats, Joe Biden has the most positive favorable-unfavorable score — long considered a significant metric of electability — where he was viewed favorably by 49% of those polled, compared to unfavorably by 39%. This is referred to as a ‘plus ten’ in political jargon. This compared to a ‘minus seven’ for Sanders, with 41% positive vs. 48% negative. Among the rest of the Democrat field tested by the Q Poll, only South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg had a positive score.
I count myself among those who fully expected that Joe Biden would peak in the polls on the day he announced his campaign, and that his poll numbers would then regress steadily, ultimately leading to a tight contest among a handful of top-tier candidates. We have seen this pattern before, when political parties waited for a designated savior to enter the race, only to see that candidate savaged once they actually entered the fray.
Biden’s ability to sustain his position well ahead of the rest of the field has been surprising. He has largely avoided entangling himself in the intra-party policy debates that have embroiled other aspiring candidates by essentially running a general election campaign against Donald Trump. So far, that strategy has played into Democrat anxiety, as by running against Trump, he reinforces his appeal to Democrats nervous about the ability of their nominee to do that which Biden is already doing.
Biden’s standing has been buttressed by a couple of other factors. Polling suggests that his relatively centrist stances on issues are aligned with a large share of Democrats, and, thus far, with no other relative moderate among the top-tier of candidates, he has not faced competition in the moderate “lane.” In addition, according to the Q Poll, progressive/liberal Democrats have thus far been paying more attention to the nomination campaign than moderate and conservative Democrats, and, accordingly, much of the media coverage has focused on intra-party debates over progressive issues. While this has shown Biden to be out of step with Democrat activists, it has at the same time supported his strategy of presenting himself as the candidate focused on and capable of beating Trump.
Even as Biden has benefitted from having the moderate lane to himself, Bernie’s candidacy is suffering from the range of choices that progressive Democrats now have to choose from. If Bernie has seen his support in the polls drifting downward, that shift certainly has less to do with Joe Biden than with Elizabeth Warren, and to some extent Kamala Harris. Warren, in particular, has worked diligently to put meat on on the bare bones of Bernie’s revolution. Unlike Sanders, whose themes of Medicare-for-All and free college tuition have been around for a while, with little specificity beyond that they will be paid for by the 1%, Warren has taken it upon herself to craft a full array of policy proposals for fixing the American capitalist system and addressing the growing problem of income inequality.
The structure of the early primaries is also skewed to Biden’s advantage. These advantages are not a function of machinations by the Democratic National Committee, but rather the combination of the benefit of name recognition — which Biden and Sanders share — and the fact that Biden is the only arguably center-left candidate in a top tier that loosely comprises Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren and Buddigieg. When Iowa voters show up to caucus, those whose priority is to nominate a progressive or woman candidate will likely find themselves splitting their loyalties among a number of strong candidates, while Biden will stand alone — presuming that Coloradans Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, John Delaney or other relatively centrist candidates you have never heard of are not able to make a dent in the polls in the coming months. Biden should hold similar advantages in the other early states of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
If he doesn’t mess up. I continue to expect that Biden will come down to earth before all is said and done, though for no particular reason beyond the fact that frontrunners never seem to make it, and Biden, in particular, is a gaff machine. Biden’s central argument that he is uniquely capable of beating Trump in a general election belies the fact that he has failed dramatically in his previous campaigns for the presidency. It may well be that other candidates might do as well or better; the problem is that in an historical moment when Democrat voters are looking for a sure thing, there really is no way to make the case that one can run successfully against Donald Trump, until one runs successfully against Donald Trump.
And there is the age thing. It is hard to look at Biden and Bernie and not take note of the fact that should one of them become president, he will be older than any president who has ever served. Either one of them, the day he walks into the Oval Office, would be older than Ronald Reagan — our oldest President — on the day he walked out.
Right now, however, the Lombardi rule is looming to trump everything else. According to the Des Moines Register/CNNpoll, 65% of those polled who plan to attend the Iowa caucuses said that beating Trump will be their highest priority, compared to 31% who indicated that it will be more important to support someone who shares their views on major issues. A Monmouth University poll of New Hampshire voters mirrored the same sentiment, preferring by 68% to 25% a candidate who they disagree with on issues but they believe to be stronger against Trump over one who supports their issues but who they think may have a harder time winning. Bernie — and many progressive Democrats who share his view of the world — may believe that he has been proven right, and that time and again Joe Biden was on the wrong side of history. His problem, and that facing other candidates hoping to break through, is that it appears that many Democrats may not care about all of that this time around.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.