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Democrats Can Stop Bernie. But Only If They Want To.

There's no fate but what we make.
February 24, 2020
Democrats Can Stop Bernie. But Only If They Want To.

1. Culling the Herd

Bernie Sanders had a tremendously good Nevada showing. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first we should talk about the rest of the Democratic field.

Joe Biden is alive! Not all the way alive, but it turns out that he did need a state that wasn’t roughly 99 percent white and when he got to one, his poll numbers spiked.

I don’t want to overstate this: Biden got lapped by Sanders. More than doubled up. Beat bad. Beat . . . what’s the expression? . . . like a drum.

And yet: Biden outperformed his poll numbers. Going into the caucus, Biden was at 17 percent in the RCP Nevada average. As I’m writing this, with some results still outstanding, Biden is at 21 percent.

Why is this important? Because it shows that Biden has stopped his free-fall and reversed direction. It was not obvious that he would be able to do this. He now moves into South Carolina where he has a chance to beat Sanders. If he does that, then the Democrats will have some choices to make.

We’ll get to those in a minute, too.

But first, I’d like to talk about Amy Klobuchar.

I’ve been saying for weeks that she’s the John Kasich of the field. Which is to say: A spoiler who has no path to the nomination.

Please note that I did not say no plausible path. Just: No path.

Which is to say this:

There is no state that Klobo could win even if you reduced the race to a one-on-one contest. With the possible—possible—exception of Minnesota. And even there, I would only like her chances against The Mayors.

The only thing her presence in the race can accomplish is pulling between 3 and 6 points from Biden/Buttigieg/Bloomberg in each of the remaining contests.

2. Who Wants to Stop Bernie?

Let’s be clear: If Bernie Sanders was a normal Democrat, this race would be all but over. The rest of the field would back off, the party would consolidate around him, and he’d begin moving inexorably toward the convention and pivoting to the general election.

The only reason that none of this is happening—literally not one of those four things—is that Sanders is not a normal Democrat any more than Donald Trump was a normal Republican. He is an outsider trying to stage a hostile takeover of the party. And he’s succeeding.

But his success is not inevitable.

Here is what we can safely speculate on:

  • If someone is going to win an outright delegate majority, it will almost certainly be Sanders.
  • Sanders is more likely to win a delegate plurality than anyone else, though it is conceivable that Biden, Bloomberg, or Buttigieg could wind up with a plurality if the dynamics of the race shifted dramatically.

People are working under the assumption that if Sanders has a plurality, then he has to be given the nomination on subsequent balloting at the convention. I think that’s probably correct. But not certainly.

And that’s because it is conceivable that Bernie’s high-water mark will be Super Tuesday and after that, the race could shift against him. If Bloomberg’s money begins to tell and Bernie gets fully vetted on the air across the remaining states, it’s possible that the momentum swings against him down the stretch. It is not hard to imagine a world in which Bernie arrives at the convention with the most delegates, but being the guy finishing second in a lot of late states.

If that were to happen, you could make a very good case that the least-bad scenario would be for the Dems to vote the nomination to someone else.

Which brings us back to the “normal” Democrat stuff. Why would Democrats feel compelled to rally around a guy who:

  • Started fading once people fully examined his past and his plans for the future.
  • Limps into the convention with a lead that shrinks with each primary.
  • Isn’t actually a Democrat.

I mean, maybe they just zombie-walk into a Sanders nomination at that point anyway. But maybe not.

In order to find out, though, Mike Bloomberg needs to turn his Death Star against Sanders now and either he, or Biden, or Mayor Pete have to emerge with an alternate vision for the party’s future. In other words, the party has to want to stop Bernie.

And even that seems like a long-shot at this point.

3. Sully

This column by Andrew Sullivan really hit me where I live:

The idea that Donald J. Trump is a president best defined by his weakness has always carried a kind of knowing, world-weary authority. It’s basically the Washington Republican response when you’re freaking out about Trump’s incessant power grabs. Calm down, they tell us; he’s not really effective; he’s a shiny object to keep non-college-educated whites in the GOP’s grip; we’re still having elections; he’s only behaving like presidents before Watergate; the economy is fine; he’s more in touch with America than the rest of you. And so on.

And I should say I really, really want to believe Republicans when they say this. I’d love to adopt a more laconic and nuanced attitude in these nerve-racking times . . .

I also admire the sangfroid of some non-hysterics. In an age of high emotionality, the calm-down chorus has managed to summon up an air of coolness, detachment, moderation. To take one of the more persuasive advocates of this basic position: New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. He argued a while back that the best way to see the Trump administration was more as LBJ than Mussolini. This week, he described the Trump era as a “black comedy” — something unmistakably dark but ultimately unserious. On February 1, Ross made the broader case that Trump is “a reckless and distracted figure, a serial squanderer of opportunities, who barely won the presidency and whose coalition is united only in partisan solidarity and fear of liberalism. He may not be removable by the impeachment process, but is not a king; he is a widely hated, legislatively constrained president facing a difficult re-election … A failed impeachment doesn’t give him new powers or new popularity.”

And to make sure we fully understand and witness what he’s doing, he has also declared himself as “I guess, the chief law enforcement officer” of the United States, and made a series of very public assertions that he can do anything he wants in the criminal-justice sphere. For all this, he is at 49 percent high in the Gallup poll, at a yearslong peak of 44.2 percent in the FiveThirtyEight poll of polls and 46 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average. . . .

Look at the precedents that have already been set: A president can now ignore Congress’ power of the purse, by redirecting funds from Congress’ priorities to his own (as in the wall); he can invent a “national emergency” out of nothing and exercise powers that are, at their worst, dictatorial (as Trump did to fund his wall); he can broadly refuse to cooperate with any legitimate congressional inquiries — and defy all congressional subpoenas (as he did with impeachment); he can, reportedly, order illegal acts and promise his subordinates he will subsequently pardon them if they are discovered; he can dangle pardons, obstruct justice, and intimidate witnesses with impunity; he can slander judges and accuse the FBI and CIA of being part of a seditious “deep state.”

He can wage war unilaterally and instantly, without any congressional approval, while lying about the reason (what Iranian imminent attack?) and denying the consequences (the serious injuries that were inflicted on U.S. service members in Iraq); he can stack his Cabinet with many lackeys who never have to undergo Senate hearings — because they’re only ever “acting” Cabinet members; he can threaten media entities (like Amazon) with antitrust actions because of negative coverage; and he can leverage American military aid against Congress’ wishes in order to get a foreign government to smear his potential political opponents and describe it as a “perfect” presidential act. We also know that a president in this polarized deadlock will almost never be subject to a veto override — and that the judiciary is being packed with adherents to untrammeled executive power.

Are we supposed to believe these precedents will not be cited and deployed by every wannabe strongman president in the future? Are we supposed to regard these massive holes below the waterline of the ship of state as no big deal? And with these precedents in his first term, are we supposed to regard what could Trump get away with in a second term as a form of black comedy? I’m sorry but I don’t get the joke.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.