History, they say, doesn’t so much repeat. It rhymes.
The campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination appears to be an exception. Once again, the contest appears to be coming down to a choice between a “centrist” establishmentarian corporatist with institutional backing (Joe Biden) and a left-leaning populist progressive (Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders) preferred by Democrats, of whom 3 out of 4 voters self-identify as progressives.
In 2016, the Democratic National Committee smooshed their thumbs all over the scale, brazenly cheating the insurgent progressive Sanders so they could install their preferred choice, the right-leaning Hillary Clinton. They won the battle but lost the war. Fewer than 80% of Democrats who supported Bernie in the primaries voted for Hillary in the general election. Disgruntled progressive voters — especially those who sat at home on Election Day — cost her the race.
Who’s to blame for President Donald Trump? Democrats have been arguing about this ever since.
Centrists call Bernie’s backers sore losers and say leftists are myopic beyond understanding, untrustworthy supporters of a man who never officially declared fealty to the Democratic Party. Why didn’t progressives understand that nothing was more important than defeating the clear and present danger to the republic represented by Trump?
Progressives counter that after decades of dutifully falling in line after their candidates fell to primary-time centrist-favoring chicanery — Ted Kennedy to a sleazy last-minute change in delegate rules, Howard Dean to a media-engineered audio smear, John Edwards to censorship — the party’s sabotage of Bernie was one crushed leftie dream too far. Democrats, progressives say, had to be taught a lesson. The left isn’t a wing; it’s the base. Anyway, who’s to say that Trump is so much worse than Hillary would have been? At least Trump doesn’t seem to share her lust for war.
The fight for the Democratic Party matters because it informs dynamics as well as the strategic logic of the current primary clash. At this writing, pollsters are calling it a three-way race between Biden, Warren and Sanders, but this campaign is really a repeat of 2016: Biden versus (Warren or Sanders).
(If Warren or Sanders drops out, it’s a safe bet the surviving progressive receives the exiting contestant’s endorsement and his or her voters.)
Democrats tell pollsters they care about electability, i.e., choosing a candidate with a strong chance of defeating Trump. But who is that? Biden or Warren/Sanders?
In current theoretical head-to-head matchup polls, Biden beats Trump by 12 points, Warren wins by 5, and Sanders bests the president by 7. But it’s a long way to November 2020. At this point, these numbers are meaningless except to say that there’s a credible case for any of the top three as viable challengers to Trump.
2016 clearly illustrates the risk of nominating Biden: Progressives probably won’t vote for him. Some might even defect to Trump, as did a substantial number of Bernie voters in 2016.
If anything, Biden is even less appealing to the progressive base than Hillary was. Clinton offered the history-making potential of a first woman president and a sharp mind; Biden is another old white man, one whose repeated verbal stumbles are prompting pundits to wonder aloud whether he is suffering from dementia. Assuming he survives another 14 months without winding up in memory care, Biden will probably lose to Trump.
If Biden secures the nomination, centrists will again argue that nothing matters more than beating Trump. I see no sign that progressives will agree.
The real question is one that nobody is asking: What if Warren or Sanders gets the nod? Will centrists honor their “blue no matter who” slogan if the shoe is finally on the other foot and the Democratic nominee hails from the left flank of the party?
There isn’t enough data to say one way or the other.
The party’s silent war on Sanders broke out into the open earlier this year. “I believe a gay Midwestern mayor can beat Trump. I believe an African American senator can beat Trump. I believe a western governor, a female senator, a member of Congress, a Latino Texan or a former vice president can beat Trump,” Jon Cowan, president of then right-wing Democratic organization Third Way, said in June. “But I don’t believe a self-described democratic socialist can win.” On the other hand, he is the “second choice” of most Biden supporters.
As Sanders stalls at the 20% mark, self-described capitalist Warren continues to receive more media coverage and, thus, increasing popular support. But would Bidenites show up for her in November? No one knows.
Progressives haven’t had a chance at the brass ring since November 1972, when George McGovern suffered one of the unfairest losses in American electoral history to a warmongering sleazeball who was forced to resign less than three years later over a Watergate scandal that had already broken out. It was a bitter conclusion to a campaign that was in many ways ahead of its time. McGovern wanted universal health care. Like Andrew Yang, McGovern proposed a universal basic income to lift up the poor.
Even after the party convention, centrist Democratic leaders like John Connally formed Democrats for Nixon, an oxymoron if there ever was one, to try to undermine McGovern’s candidacy. It’s hard to imagine their modern-day counterparts resorting to such brazen treason. More likely, they would withhold their enthusiastic support for a progressive like Sanders or Warren.
If Biden withdraws from the race — a real possibility, given his obviously deteriorating mental state and the long arc to next summer’s nominating convention — centrists will have to choose between four more years of Trump and atoning for the sins of 1972.