The Politics Of “Blah”

“The men who have changed the world never succeeded by winning over the powerful, but always by stirring the masses. The first method is a resort to intrigue and only brings limited results. The latter is the course of genius and changes the face of the world.”

                                                                     —Napoleon Bonaparte

One of the more peculiar and revealing political developments of the past few weeks has been the concerted effort by the Democratic Party, often working hand in glove with the mainstream news media, to bury the Presidential candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders.  Fearing that he was too far left to prevail against President Trump in 2020—and he might prove a drag on other Democratic candidates—a concerted effort to marginalize him has apparently now succeeded, and his efforts to secure the nomination are likely finished.  

Whether lining up obediently behind Joe Biden will translate into victory in November is anyone’s guess, but the pivot away from the overtly Socialist policies represented by Bernie Sanders is an interesting snapshot of what Democratic political insiders perceive our hopes and dreams to be—or perhaps what they dream and hope we will vote for.

Joe Biden is an ink blot; Democrats seem to see what they want to see.  He is familiar, he wears the patina of the Obama presidency, and he offers the pleasing sort of reassurances that translate well into campaign commercials.  

Shoving a consummate D.C. insider to the forefront seems a calculated bet that Americans want a return to the past they rejected in 2016 when they elected Donald Trump, the ultimate outsider.  The big question is, of course, whether Americans are now ready to embrace a candidate with a long—and target rich—political record and history of gaffes, outbursts, and simmering family financial scandals.

It will certainly be the case that the news media, most of whom hate President Trump with the white hot passion of a thousand suns, will unquestioningly and unabashedly line up behind Joe Biden—if only to punish Donald Trump for the years he has spent denigrating their profession—but this may, in fact, backfire in exactly the manner it did in 2016 with Hillary Clinton’s CNN, MSNBC, NYT, WaPo, ABC, NPR lovefest.  Lack of balance by the media has proved to be a credibility killer in the past, and an overt rejection by the media elite simply turbocharges Donald Trump’s appeal to many Republican voters who also feel rejected by a smug and self-important D.C. establishment.

The more perplexing question is whether the many dedicated followers of Bernie Sanders and the Socialist revolution he promised are going to meekly line up to vote for a mainstream Democrat whom they deem just another duplicitous tool of the dastardly plutocracy.  

It is hard to reconcile the anti-establishment fervor of the self-styled “dirtbag left” with the old school backroom politics that Joe Biden represents.  Imagine the cast of Mad Men plunked down in the middle of Haight-Ashbury in 1967.  Conversations are possible, but true understanding is likely not going to happen.  There will, of course, be lots of outreach and sweeteners offered in an attempt to bridge the gap, but if the “Bernie Bros” decide to stay home on Election Day, it’s going to be a dismal Election Night for Joe Biden and the entire Democratic Party.

The parallels between the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries are obvious and should be deeply worrisome to those who want to drive Donald Trump from office.  In 2016 the establishment choice was Hillary Clinton; in 2020 the establishment choice is Joe Biden.  Hillary Clinton received lots of elite endorsements and support; Joe Biden is trudging along that same path.  Both candidates carry baggage regarding possible corrupt or inappropriate actions while holding previous elective office.  Both candidates look good on paper but tend to run into problems while addressing other carbon-based life forms.  Each is thought to be the smart choice, but neither rouses much real enthusiasm.  They are the “eat your peas” candidates—it’s supposedly good for you

A weird sense of déjà vu is unavoidable.

Having pushed all their chips to the middle of the table—before unsuccessfully trying to bluff with a pair of threes—during the impeachment hearings, Democrats are now hoping the spread of Coronavirus can raise enough concerns about President Trump’s crisis management skills to swing a winning margin of votes their way.  

It is, of course, impossible to say whether Coronavirus will be, as some seem to hope, Trump’s downfall, but the Governors of both California and Washington have already praised the federal government’s crisis response to date, and diagnosed cases in America number only just over a thousand.  If Coronavirus infections become far, far greater in number, it is still possible that fear will turn to anger, but this is only speculation at this point.

The reality is that Democrats are once again betting that “blah” will win the election—if they can convince enough voters to fear a second term for President Trump.  This was—déjà vu!—the same strategy used in 2016, when opponents warned of economic cataclysm, riots, concentration camps, and the imminent arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse if Donald Trump won the election.  Democrats were, in comparison, the safe, sane, and sensible choice.

What did not work in 2016 might work in 2020 if Coronavirus crashes the economy, a record low unemployment rate being one of President Trump’s regular applause lines, but (to continue with the poker analogies), Democrats still might have to hope to fill an inside straight in order to win.  Heretofore, the contrast between the extreme economic impact of Coronavirus overseas and the notably milder effects in America seems to work in President Trump’s favor, but if business and school shutdowns become commonplace and highly disruptive, Democrats might yet turn over a winning hole card.

Nonetheless, it seems at this point that Democrats are hoping for a whole lot of hypotheticals to fall their way, and they seem to be banking on elite disdain for Donald Trump to translate into a winning electoral strategy.  This is, of course, the old 2016 strategy taken out for another spin.  Watching the large and exuberant crowds still lining up for hours for a seat at one of President Trump’s campaign stops, those hoping to muster the votes necessary to drive him from office likely experience a quiver of concern regarding their prospects in November.

Having now leveraged the power of insider opinion and the mainstream media to diminish and defeat Bernie Sanders’ Socialist road show, Democrats must now make a persuasive case for the retro-candidacy of Joe Biden.  His standard stump speech, which is rich in platitudes and short on specifics, will need to be fleshed out going forward—which might end up infuriating the many left-wing Democrats he will need in order to win.  

Should Mr. Biden show the least kindness toward Wall Street, multi-national corporations, business owners, military contractors, landlords, healthcare conglomerates, bankers, pharmaceutical companies, insurers, oil and natural gas concerns, meat and dairy producers, commercial builders—in other words, all your standard capitalist pigs—a lot of angry Bernie-bred activists will be making his life utterly miserable on the campaign trail.  Count on it.

In addition, much will depend on Joe Biden not acting like Joe Biden—a man who sometimes seems startled to realize that it is no longer 1987.  Many of his previous statements, behaviors, and policies are toxic to Democrats today.  Obama era immigration policies, the Wall Street bailout during the Great Recession, and his “Gropey Joe” reputation are anathema to the many who now favor opening the borders, punishing the wealthy, and excoriating old white guys who are overly familiar with the ladies.  

Whether Mr. Biden can outrun his past and repackage himself for an electorate that finds much of what he once represented either evil or insulting remains to be seen.  We can expect that the open contempt that Senator Biden showed for Anita Hill during the Supreme Court  confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991 will pop up in Republican campaign commercials, which won’t help much with the female Democratic voters he will need to come out in force in 2020.

However, the most important factor that will determine whether Mr. Biden can win Presidency is plain and simple: voter enthusiasm.  

If Democrats knock on doors, cheer lustily at large rallies, and turn out in droves on Election Day, Joe Biden has a good chance.  Whether this will happen depends wholly on whether his embarrassing missteps are few, lingering questions regarding his health stay in the background, and left-wing Democrats are willing to trade passion for practicality.  

Having decided to back away from Bernie Sanders in favor of an establishment warhorse whose main selling point is “electability”, the gap between high hopes and quotidian reality might be too large for some Democratic voters—and they could retreat and brood rather than engage and organize.  Should the sniping and sneering of disappointed and disaffected Bernie Sanders acolytes begin to dominate the campaign conversation, Mr. Biden could face an impossibly uphill slog.  

President Trump’s ability to whip his base into a frenzy—and attract Republican-curious independents—is already a demonstrated fact.  Mr. Biden’s challenge now is to show he can move the masses as well as he can wow the party insiders and political elites.  If he cannot manage to work a crowd with the same intuitive skill as President Trump, enough of Mr. Biden’s potential voters might stay home on Election Day, sink his final shot at the Presidency, and leave Democrats brooding—yet again—about what might have been had they gone with their hearts and backed the nomination of Bernie Sanders.