On Monday, the ignition was turned on the 2020 presidential election. Voters who could make it out to caucus in Iowa kicked off the primary process across that midwestern state. As you might have heard, it didn’t end well. Meanwhile the Democratic National Committee, and the mainstream of the party in general including government officials, activists, heads of think tanks, and major donors, are working very hard to drive their desired primary outcome.
For many voters, in Iowa and around the country, this election is about Trump. Re-elect him or do whatever can be done to oust him. Oddly, though, the Democratic party mainstream seems to have gotten confused about which of those things they want to work toward. Because they are currently doing a great deal to help Trump get re-elected.
About ten days before Iowa, an Emerson College national poll revealed that only 54% of voters who support Bernie Sanders would definitely vote for whichever Democrat won. Social media erupted. Those bad Sanders people would not commit to vote for another candidate. Actually, Sanders supporters were not the most recalcitrant in the poll. Supporters of Andrew Yang, albeit in what was surely a much smaller sample, were even more reluctant. Only 50% of them would make the commitment. Moreover, 42% of Yang supporters said they would not vote for anyone but their guy, a statement only 16% of Sanders voters would make.
One can understand why Yang, who has run a spunky race but has no chance of winning the nomination, generates less consternation than Sanders, who has a legitimate shot at being the Democratic nominee in September. What is less understandable is why the poll caused such anger in the first place.
We need to bear in mind that Sanders is not a Democrat. He is an Independent who caucuses with Democrats. His supporters are, therefore, more likely not to be Democrats. It’s true of Yang as well, who, though a Democrat, is arguably even more disconnected from the party machine than Sanders. For both men, that is part of their appeal. They also draw from a well that is going to include voters who despise the mainstream Democratic party and the mainstream Republican party of old. That means they are potential Trump voters or exactly the sort of people who usually don’t vote or vote third party.
Getting upset because voters like that won’t vote “anyone but Trump” ignores who they are. Sanders and Yang both draw from several pools. Some of them, like disaffected Independents, might not vote in a meaningful way to the presidential election at all. Getting mad because such people (who are, for obvious reasons, much more likely to be the ones who won’t vote for just any Democrat) won’t vote the way you want them too is irrational. It also ignores the fact that these are voters who other Democrats wouldn’t have gotten in any case.
Sure, it would be great if the Sanders (or Yang) or Bust voters could be convinced to vote against Trump. But that’s not what is going to win for Trump, just like it wasn’t the factor that won for him in 2016. If we want to defeat Trump, it requires honesty. And the first part of that is asking whether the mainstream Democrats would be willing to beat Trump no matter who wins their primary.
In January, we heard Hillary Clinton waffle at the question of whether she would support Bernie Sanders if he is the nominee. She lied about Sanders not supporting her (he did support her, quite robustly, she just wanted him to start that support before the convention), and was barely challenged on that lie by the media. Then, Joe Biden echoed her lack of support. Both eventually recognized that they couldn’t be too blatant about this lack of support, given the overwhelming desire among Democrats to defeat Trump at all costs. But they certainly called into question whether they really believed a President Sanders was preferable to a President Trump.
This is connected to the running theme in this primary — one which has been echoed by candidates across the board — of trying not to campaign in a serious way against one another in the primaries. This is based on the mistaken notion that the primary race in 2016 between Sanders and Clinton was a key factor in Clinton’s defeat. It wasn’t. That narrative just doesn’t fit the facts. Go back and look at the 2008 primaries, or 2004, 2000, 1992…as far back as you want to go in competitive primaries. They were all FAR harsher than 2016, which itself was not anywhere near as mild as this year’s have been. This is even truer for competitive Republican primaries. It’s called campaigning and competing. The idea is that you want to demonstrate why you have the best skills and ideas, and why your competitors do not.
This notion that criticism in the primary hurts a candidate in the general just isn’t true. In fact, the opposite is the case. For example, there has been scant mention of Biden’s record of literally being the lawyer in the Senate and the Obama administration for huge banks and credit card companies. If he’s the nominee, Trump is going to lambaste him with that reality. For most voters, it’s going to come out of nowhere and have a devastating impact. The same can be said for Bernie’s “socialism.” Trump is already readying his hardball throws on both counts. Supporters of any of the candidates have no idea how their choice will weather Trump’s attacks. If they had to contend with the criticisms in the primaries, we’d have some concrete idea of how they’ll play in the general. Right now, everyone who says a socialist cannot win or a man who’s been in the pocket of big banks can’t beat Trump’s populism is guessing, present company included.
I am also seeing a sense of fatalism among some sectors. The strong economy, Trump having gotten away with heretofore unimaginable acts by a sitting president, and the debacle in Iowa are convincing people that the Democrats can’t beat the Grifter-In-Chief.
Put bluntly, there is nothing, NOTHING inevitable about Trump’s re-election. We’re talking about a president who lost the first election’s popular vote by a margin FIVE TIMES GREATER than the next biggest such gap in history. No other winner of electoral but not popular votes had even lost by 1 million (George W. Bush was the highest, he lost by about 544,000 votes), let alone almost 3 million votes. He is one of the least popular incumbents in history. He has been impeached, and although he was not removed, he is the first impeached president to see a member of his own party vote in the Senate for his removal. The most recent polls during the Senate trial showed a narrow majority favoring his removal from office, something that even Nixon didn’t see until his final few days before his resignation.
This is a remnant of 2016, and the mainstream of the Democratic party still can’t admit the obvious reason they lost — they tried to undermine the democratic process within their own party. True, Clinton was a terrible candidate for many reasons — she was not trusted, she had been the target of both real critiques and pure, false propaganda attacks for a quarter century by then, and she was the very picture of the Washington insider, which was exactly what no one wanted. She also had to overcome considerable misogyny.
But while all of those were factors, she didn’t lose because of them. They were obstacles all along, they didn’t suddenly pop up during the campaign against Trump. Indeed, she was clearly overcoming those obstacles just as her former boss, Barack Obama had eight years earlier.
In the election, people didn’t vote for Trump over Clinton, people stayed home (or left the president part blank) and that was what decided the race in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan that proved decisive. The reason for that was only in small part because she was a lousy candidate. In greatest measure it was because the Democratic party was caught undermining their own democratic process. The party was trying to engineer a coronation rather than a nomination. That got exposed with the leaked emails, and the arrogant, complete lack of remorse from key figures like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, John Podesta, and Clinton herself, which, along with the subsequent perfidy of Donna Brazile, showed Democratic voters that their party was not allowing a fair primary. That disillusioned a lot of voters and combined with a candidate that most didn’t like led to them staying home.
The proof of this is 2018, when Democrats saw a significant rise in voter turnout. No doubt, antipathy to Trump was a key factor, but it is worth noting that the Blue Wave of 2018 saw not only a record number of women elected, but a very diverse array of candidates, ranging from some of the most progressive candidates in American political history to some decidedly conservative Democrats. While progressives and conservatives wrangled over the meaning of 2018, they both missed the point: the difference from 2016 was not Trump, but that Democratic voters felt they were participating in a legitimate process again.
So, what do the Democrats do in 2020? The same thing they did in 2016. They change the rules of the debates after almost all the people of color are forced out of the race in order to grease the wheels for a billionaire who is much more like an old-style Republican than any kind of Democrat to save their conservative goals because the money in the party truly does prefer four more years of Trump to a President Sanders (and possibly even a President Warren, though she’s obviously far less threatening). They would much rather have Bloomberg up there as it is becoming clearer by the day that none of the party conservatives — Biden, Klobuchar or Buttigieg — are likely to secure the nomination.
The issue is the engineering of the primary. The damage would be the same if the party was engineering things in favor of Sanders or Warren — it’s not about which candidate is being favored or disadvantaged, it’s about the attacks on democracy. It’s about depriving the people of their choice. People don’t like that, and it’s what the Democratic party now represents. And it absolutely will have a chilling effect on voter turnout.
Defeating Trump is not hard. Any honestly nominated Democrat (except maybe Biden, who’s just too horrible a campaigner, as I’ve pointed out in the past), conservative or progressive, could beat him. But by giving people a choice between Trump and a thoroughly dishonest party machine (and let’s recall, Republicans have not done similar things. They don’t have to because they don’t give their voters any options outside of oligarchs and kleptocrats), combined with their sheer incompetence, Democrats will re-elect Trump.