Eleven days and an eternity in political time ago, I offered some advice for Democrats seeking to stop Bernie Sanders, drawn from the failed experience of #NeverTrump. Losing candidates need to drop out, I suggested, unconventional alliances need to be considered and hanging around hoping for a brokered convention is a fool’s game if you’re ceding a plurality of delegates to the insurgent candidate you want to stop.
The tone of my column, like the evidence of the polls, suggested that the stop-Sanders effort would meet the same fate as the stop-Trump movement and that the Vermont socialist would complete his takeover against a divided opposition.
But instead, in a whirlwind few days, the Democrats took my advice, and it worked. Instead of a divided field of moderates headed into Super Tuesday, there was a rapid consolidation. Instead of defeated candidates limping off to lick their wounds, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg were on a stage with Joe Biden within a day of their decisions to drop out. And now, instead of sticking around John Kasich-style and playing for the convention, Michael Bloomberg has thrown in with the Biden team as well.
This combination of events has not guaranteed a Biden nomination, but it has made it very likely, and it suggests that the Democratic Party still has some institutional potency, some ballast as a political organization, some capacity to make decisions as a party that the Republicans in 2016 lacked. And while obvious credit for the anti-Sanders consolidation goes to individual political actors, to Buttigieg and Klobuchar especially, it’s worth considering three other reasons it was possible for Biden to consolidate support more easily and quickly than any of the non-Trump Republicans in 2016.
The first reason is that the Republican base’s relationship to the G.O.P. leadership in 2016 was more toxic, hostile and disillusioned, relative to the relationship between Democrats and their establishment in 2020. This difference has many sources, but a crucial one is the divergent legacies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The Bush presidency ended in failure, unpopularity and crisis, which meant that even among Republicans who still liked Bush personally, there was a palpable sense — or a latent sense, waiting to be activated by Trump — that the official establishment of the party didn’t really have any idea what they were doing and needed to be ignored or rejected or thrown out.
Obama’s presidency, on the other hand, is regarded as a failure by only a small faction of left-wing activists and writers. A somewhat larger constituency, the core of Sanders’s youth support, think of the Obama era as a mild disappointment, a missed opportunity for bold progressive change — but in the broader Democratic electorate even this is a distinctly minority position.
So there was always an opportunity for a campaign like Biden’s to consolidate a lot of Democratic voters with a message of restoration and continuity, in a way that simply wasn’t true for a literal Bush relative like Jeb Bush — or even a figure like Marco Rubio, who was positioned, in certain ways, as W.’s ideological heir. It’s not that Democrats love their party’s elite, or that there isn’t strong anti-establishment discontent on the left as much as on the right. But there is clearly more Democratic support for Obama-ism than there was support for a Bush restoration in the 2016 Republican Party, and in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday that made a big difference.
But so did simple political contingency. Bloomberg’s campaign, for instance, looked like it was helping Sanders by dividing moderates and siphoning away Biden’s African-American support. But in hindsight what it actually did was draw attention and fire away from Biden across two critical debates, so that the former vice president could lurk as the fallback choice and then get a rush of returning voters when Bloomberg’s onstage performances disappointed (and made Biden look charismatic by comparison). The outcome over the last four days might have been different if, say, Elizabeth Warren had felt an incentive to attack Biden instead of demolishing the billionaire mayor; instead, Biden went from being an afterthought to a big winner without absorbing any significant attacks.
Likewise, as much as Biden was hurt by having extremely white states like Iowa and New Hampshire go first, the combination of favorable demographics and pre-Super Tuesday timing made South Carolina perfect for his anti-Sanders consolidation. Ted Cruz won a similarly thumping victory over Trump in Wisconsin in 2016, but it came much later, after Trump had built a big lead and there was no chance of denying him a plurality of delegate support. Give Cruz that kind of victory earlier, and maybe there would have been a rush to his side, maybe Marco Rubio would have accepted a role in a unity ticket, maybe Trump could have been defeated.
Or maybe not, because alongside the shape of party opinion and the role of luck there’s a third factor that helped Biden do what NeverTrump could not: His fellow Democrats and especially his fellow politicians clearly just like him more than Republicans liked any of the NeverTrump candidates. Jebworld and Chris Christie loathed Rubio as an upstart, Kasich offered a cuddly persona but had alienated colleagues for years, and almost every powerful Republican in Washington simply hated Cruz. So the idea of rallying around any one of them for the greater good was a tough ask, in a way that it simply isn’t that tough for most Democratic politicians to sign on with Uncle Joe.
It’s in this sense that Biden himself deserves particular credit for yesterday’s consolidation. He wasn’t just in the right place at the right time; he was the right-enough person, because across years and decades he succeeded in building up good will among both his allies and rivals — a political resource worth husbanding, and one that on Super Tuesday definitely proved its worth.
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