If The New York Times has the right of it, the Democratic establishment is beginning to sweat live bullets over the gaseous anomaly that is the third-try presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden. On Tuesday, the Times ran a hilariously titled piece — “Anxious Democratic Establishment Asks, ‘Is There Anyone Else?’” — in which some possible Biden alternatives were floated: Michael Bloomberg, John Kerry and, of course, Hillary Clinton.
Way to go, Joe.
A little context is in order here. On that same Tuesday, former Ukraine ambassador William Taylor eviscerated Donald Trump’s “no quid pro quo” defense of his Ukraine dealings during a closed-door hearing before the House Oversight Committee that included several Republicans (a fact which should muzzle the mayhem House Republicans unleashed on Wednesday, but probably won’t).
In the face of this damning turn of events, Trump decided it was high time to change the subject by letting his unvarnished racist flag fly free in the breeze. “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching,” he tweeted early that morning.
An immediate detonation of outrage justly followed Trump’s decision to equate his own constitutionally appropriate political woes with the generational massacre of Black Americans. Rep. Elijah Cummings passed only days before Trump vomited his vile comment onto the nation’s carpet, but one needs no imagination to know what his reaction would have been.
Joining the chorus of condemnation that day was Joe Biden. “Impeachment is not ‘lynching,’ it is part of our Constitution,” he tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “Our country has a dark, shameful history with lynching, and to even think about making this comparison is abhorrent. It’s despicable.”
It took only a few hours for Biden’s own words to boomerang on him, again. A video clip of Biden describing the Clinton impeachment as a “partisan lynching” went viral, and he was forced to apologize for his choice of language. “This wasn’t the right word to use and I’m sorry about that,” he tweeted that same night.
Abhorrent. Despicable. Utterly predictable.
Joe Biden’s Senate career spanned from 1973 to 2008, a 45-year run that saw him take a number of praiseworthy actions that were brutally offset by a larger number of genuinely terrible actions. Salted throughout his long career are enough verbal car accidents to leave the general impression that “Gaffe” is his middle name.
His 1988 presidential campaign collapsed in the shame and disgrace of a plagiarism scandal that should have been enough to end or at least severely curtail his political career, but Biden was a senator from Delaware, and Delaware is Valhalla for big banks, credit card companies and other massive corporations.
Those entities dug a campaign finance moat around Biden’s Senate seat, chasing off anyone who might challenge him in a primary. This served to protect Biden from his own blunders, allowing him to hold his place for nearly a half-century without experiencing any electoral consequences for his serial missteps. Over those years, Biden has repaid their largesse with interest.
After Biden’s second failed run for president in 2008 ended in the single digits after Iowa, he was rescued from Delawarean obscurity because Barack Obama needed him on the ticket to appease white establishment voters, and for the money he could bring in because he has the financial industry on speed dial.
Somehow, this long and badly damaged resume has been translated into a belief within Democratic establishment circles that Joe Biden is the only candidate who can defeat Donald Trump in 2020. Now, as his third and presumably last run for the Oval Office sputters visibly, that belief is being sorely tested.
Biden’s “lynching” calamity is telling: The rank offensiveness of Trump’s horrid comment was clear and unequivocal… until yet another verbal ghost from Biden’s past rattled its chains and blew up the narrative. It has happened before, it will happen again, and the members of the Democratic establishment are finally beginning to figure that out. This begs the question: What’s their ultimate motive?
In a recent meeting of influential Democratic donors, according to the Times, unease over Biden’s lackluster campaigning turned the conversation to some well-worn political retreads who could conceivably be lured into the race: “Would Hillary Clinton get in, the contributors wondered, and how about Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor?”
Several of the candidates mentioned in the Times piece seemed unsure their entry would garner much interest, which is at minimum a credit to their clarity of thought. Other old-guard Democrats are more certain in their opinion. “She’s done a great service to our country and public service and I supported her wholeheartedly,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of a possible Clinton candidacy, “but I believe it’s time for another nominee.”
“Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bloomberg have both told people privately in recent weeks that if they thought they could win, they would consider entering the primary — but that they were skeptical there would be an opening,” reads the Times piece. “Former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who associates say has wondered aloud about whether he should have run and has found it hard to watch Mr. Biden’s missteps, has also been urged to get in.”
Endeavoring to make sense of the establishment’s line of thinking on this is like trying to see to the bottom of a cowflop. Faced with the possible re-election of a president who represents an existential threat to democracy in the U.S., the Democratic establishment apparently believes the solution lies with a Wall Street billionaire, a man who lost to George W. Bush, or a woman who already lost once to that same existential threat.
This potential scenario sets up a rather dizzying Hobson’s Choice for progressive voters who don’t think Biden, much less any of the others mentioned by the Times, are the cure for what ails us.
If those voters are effective in thwarting Biden’s quest for the nomination, it could invite the entry of any or all of the Times’ anointed trio. If those voters are not effective in thwarting Biden, he could stumble into the nomination by dint of name recognition. Of course, Biden to this point has not needed much assistance in spiking the tires on his own campaign bus, but the situation is frustrating enough to invite despair.
Bernie Sanders is an FDR Democrat straight out of central casting. Elizabeth Warren is an enthusiastic capitalist. Pete Buttigieg has practically taken to wearing a “Yes I Am A Centrist” sign around his neck as he fishes for freaked-out would-be Biden voters. What is it exactly about this wide field of non-Biden candidates that is so terrifying to the Democratic establishment that they would even consider dumping Bloomberg and/or two previously defeated also-rans into an already crowded race?
Guessing is a hazardous undertaking in matters of such grievous import, but I’m going to toss one on the stoop and see if the cat laps it up, because it is starting to feel very 1972 around here… and not in the way establishment Democrats remember it.
In 1972, the Democratic Party was controlled by old-school political bosses like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and AFL-CIO president George Meany. Their preferred candidates that year were Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine or Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, because both Muskie and Humphrey were thoroughly beholden to the party machine.
George McGovern, a liberal senator from South Dakota (yes, such a thing did exist once) blew their plans up by winning the nomination, however, which threatened to end Daley and Meany’s stranglehold on the party. Daley and Meany — the 1972 version of the Democratic establishment — decided four more years of Richard Nixon would be preferable to handing the party over to an antiwar “radical” like McGovern. They sat on their hands for the remainder of the election, and Nixon went on to win by a historic landslide.
Would McGovern have won with Daley and Meany’s help? Probably not, given the massive unforced error he made in choosing Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton as a running mate before dumping him and throwing a sop to the establishment by tapping Sargent Shriver. But the fact that the Democratic establishment of that day chose a lawless Republican president over a good and decent Democratic senator in order to maintain control of the party gives me cold sweats.
Today’s Democratic establishment hears that story and says, “See? You can’t nominate anyone who is too far to the left!” I see that story and think of the old bulls from the fabled tale, who won’t leave until they get run off.
The old bulls of today’s Democratic establishment are bereft of new ideas, and cling to their vividly failed policies and beaten candidates with frustrating vigor. As in ’72, they seem more focused on maintaining control of the party than in defeating Donald Trump in 2020. If they pull a similar stunt this time around because they fear a party run by someone outside their calcified little circle of power, you may as well hand the election to Trump the November after next.
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