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Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Photos/Getty Images

Old white guys: Are US Democrats squandering their last chance against Trump?

For all the effort put into trying to unseat Donald Trump, you'd think the Democrats would be focused on finding a candidate who could beat him. 

Donald Trump has always been a vengeful man. In 1992, he told an interviewer that he “absolutely loved” getting even with people who were “disloyal” to him. And Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson has spoken of a private lunch at Trump Tower during the 1990s at which the future president repeatedly vowed to devote the rest his life to “destroying” five individuals who’d refused to help him when he was facing bankruptcy.

If only Trump had kept his word. The destruction of five American fat cats would seem a small price to pay for keeping him otherwise occupied and, therefore, out of the White House.

Assuming the fat cats survived, they’re probably off the hook since Trump is now preoccupied with exacting revenge on the cast of hundreds who brought us the Mueller probe, impeachment and the various other investigations that he has derailed or stonewalled into stagnation. There’s also the small matter of winning re-election. The two are related in the sense that Trump will interpret re-election as a green light to get medieval on pretty much anyone who didn’t kiss his ring during his first term.

So, if impending doom really does concentrate the mind wonderfully, you’d think all that matters to the Democratic Party is nominating a candidate who can defeat Trump on November 3. As things stand, you’d be wrong. At present, Trump’s re-election seems significantly more likely than it did before the primary process got under way.

Monitoring the Democratic candidates’ prospects throughout the year or so leading up to the Iowa Caucus on February 3, one kept coming back to two factors: first, that virtually every poll had former vice president Joe Biden as the most popular Democrat nationwide and beating Trump – often by double digits – in a head-to-head; second, history tells us that the public mood doesn’t really start to reveal itself until citizens start casting votes. Although the Iowa Democrats made such an unholy mess of their caucus that the exact final result may never be known, one thing was unmistakably clear: Biden bombed. And, a week later in New Hampshire, he bombed again.

Joe Biden. Photo/Getty Images

Throughout 2019, the media kept pointing out Biden’s shortcomings and vulnerabilities. He was lacklustre in the candidates’ debates, often got tangled up in verbal spaghetti, seemed to think his greatest selling point was someone else altogether (Barack Obama), kept harking back to a golden age of bipartisanship far removed from the ugly zero-sum game now played by the Republican Party and had crashed and burnt in his two previous attempts to win the nomination.

None of it seemed to matter. The message of the polls was that the public didn’t care about that stuff: they saw Biden as the anti-Trump, a restoration of normality and, accordingly, weren’t deterred by the incoherence, the anachronisms, the apparent lack of a relevant political identity.

But having observed Biden in the flesh and listened to his unfiltered message, Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire decided they did care about that stuff. And although Democrats in those states are overwhelmingly white, which the party as a whole isn’t, and ardently liberal, which the country as a whole most definitely isn’t, Biden has walked into a trap of his own making: how do you sustain a candidacy based on electability when not many people are voting for you?

Since 1972, no candidate from either party who finished below second in both Iowa and New Hampshire has won the nomination. Asked about Biden’s chances of coming back from the near-dead, veteran Democratic consultant Bob Shrum said, “I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s unlikely and would fly in the face of all our knowledge of political history.”

Pete Buttigieg. Photo/Getty Images

Kernel of Democratic hope

The chief beneficiary thus far of Biden’s slippage has been Bernie Sanders, a 78-year-old who suffered a heart attack last October and has just reneged on a promise to release his health records. Prior to the Nevada caucus, polling guru Nate Silver’s model forecast a 38% likelihood that no candidate would arrive at the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee in July with a majority of delegates and a 36% chance that Sanders would in fact do so. Biden was a distant third. As preliminary results from Nevada come in, Silver is forecasting a 39.9% likelihood of no majority and a 45.9% chance of Sanders winning a majority.

As the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri put it, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg “seems like he emerged fully formed from an electability vat”. The conventional wisdom, however, is that he can go so far but no further because he struggles to gain traction with the Afro-American community. The impressive Midwesterner, Amy Klobuchar, is an even longer shot.

The prospect of Sanders emerging as the candidate has caused consternation among those who believe a self-styled democratic socialist is simply unelectable. The sceptics point to the recent UK election in which the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn with whom Sanders bears comparison on a number of grounds, was taken to the cleaners.

And whereas progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading Sanders surrogate, and her so-called “Squad” get lots of media coverage, they represent solidly Democratic districts. The gains that enabled the Democrats to capture the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections were achieved by moderate candidates. Not a single Republican-held district was flipped by a left-winger.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo/Getty Images

The counterargument is that Sanders’ authenticity and crystal-clear message will generate enthusiasm and galvanise voters who wouldn’t turn out for a conventional centrist candidate. (According to the polls, barely half of Sanders supporters are committed to backing the Democratic candidate if it’s not Sanders.) It is also pointed out that, at the same stage in the 2016 cycle, Trump’s Republican rivals were insisting that he was “unelectable”.

The counter-counterargument is that, back then, Trump wasn’t up against an incumbent president. And, far from being a socialist, Trump is a poster boy for capitalism, or at least a louche version of it.

It’s quite possible that, within a month or two, the field will be down to three runners: Trump (73), Sanders and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (also 78), who has so far spent US$400 million of his own money to make himself part of the conversation. What would it say about America if the last candidates standing were three white septuagenarian males, two billionaires and a museum-piece socialist, none of whom particularly identifies with the party he purports to represent?

Perhaps that, as diplomat and philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) wrote, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”

This article was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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