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You Can’t Teach an Old Donkey New Tricks

Despite everything going wrong this week for the party regulars, establishment Democrats are now trying to regroup.
Democratic Party news, Democratic Party establishment, establishment Democrats, history of Democratic Party, Iowa caucuses results, Joe Biden news, Joe Biden Democratic candidate, Donald Trump 2002, Bernie Sanders news, Bernie Sanders youth vote,

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February 07, 2020 13:11 EDT

Not so long ago, John Kerry was the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Although he emphatically denies it, he appears ready — in case of an emergency — to have another go. Why would he do so? The reason should now be obvious. So obvious, in fact, that he explained it to a friend on a phone call overheard in a hotel lobby by NBC News reporter, Jonathan Allen. Bernie Sanders is threatening what he sees as the downfall of the Democratic Party.

Kerry may not have noticed that that downfall already occurred in 2016, when Hillary Clinton managed the difficult feat of paving Donald Trump’s road to victory, though he undoubtedly attributes Trump’s success to the perverse intentions of Bernie Sanders, who dared to challenge Clinton, thus tarnishing hers and the party’s pristine image. Kerry may also have failed to notice that the Democratic Party has continued to do its best over the past year to ensure its own downfall, without any help from Sanders. It accomplished this monumental feat by promoting and gambling on the Mueller investigation to prove Russian collusion. That ended with Trump’s “exoneration.” 

Undaunted, the Democrats followed up the humiliation with Nancy Pelosi’s folly, the predictably futile impeachment spectacle that led to the Senate’s proclamation of Donald Trump’s innocence. The Democratic Party looked desperate, weak, clueless, captious and mean. Trump emerged as a martyr and even as a symbol of stability in the face of a Democratic Party lost in the political wilderness. Worse, from a historical point of view, the ploy resulted in the confirmation of the constitutional status of the president as despot-in-chief.

Then the primary season began, and Bernie Sanders appeared to benefit from the Democrats’ disarray. A week before the Iowa caucuses, Kerry’s champion and friend, Joe Biden, had begun to show signs of fading. At the same time, Sanders was gaining strength. Kerry was concerned about the future and was speaking to a friend about what needed to be done. Here are the words the reporter overheard concerning the threat they needed to counter: “the possibility of Bernie Sanders taking down the Democratic Party — down whole.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Political party (US):

One of two private Washington, DC, clubs whose select members have cultivated the fine art of pretending to bring together a wide cross-section of the national population to democratically promote its interests while using that theoretical role of representation to focus on managing their own private interests and the interests of their wealthy and influential friends.

Contextual Note

Another NBC journalist cites an interview in which Kerry admitted that it’s all about nominating a respectable candidate (i.e. not Sanders). Whether it’s Biden, Kerry or someone else, “what’s important is to get the job done.” The logical implication is that Kerry is the kind of person who could do it if Biden were eliminated from the race. Both are recognizably establishment and so understand the rules of the game. And both are branded as being of presidential stature. They both have a name.

In the wake of Iowa, Democrats have every reason to jettison Biden. The caucuses have seriously tainted his reputation as a potential winner, with New Hampshire likely to confirm a similar result. And then there’s the albatross around Biden’s neck that is likely to follow Trump’s acquittal by the Senate for an affair that turned around the truly suspect, possibly corrupt actions of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in Ukraine. In a head-to-head campaign, Trump would have a heyday smearing the Biden family as the true villains of the impeachment fiasco. Biden would offer Trump the luxury of making himself out to be the more honest of the two candidates.

The first signs that the Democrats desperately seeking an alternative, or even a replacement, for Biden have already appeared. But the party can’t act too quickly for fear of betraying its own agenda or, worse, contributing to Bernie Sanders’ growing strength. Logically, they could go with Pete Buttigieg, who has his own youth on side but not the youth of the nation, nor its minorities. And despite his youth, to quote the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Mayor Pete “is no Jack Kennedy.”

Nor is he Barack Obama, although representing a once despised minority — gay instead of black. Buttigieg has no bankable political experience. Not only is he not a recognizable name, but for most people his name is unpronounceable. He is popular, groomed by the establishment and well funded by traditional Democratic donors, but that won’t be enough to challenge Trump.

If the interest of the Democrats is truly focused on beating Trump, they have every reason to back Sanders, who, in contrast to both Trump and Hillary Clinton, has a reputation for honesty and sincerity. He has demonstrated his capacity to generate enthusiasm and mobilize the younger generations. This last point, neglected by most of the media punditry, will play a significant role in this year’s election, especially in opposition to Trump, whose electorate tends to be older. It’s likely that a significant number of older people who voted for Trump may not bother to come out to vote this time, because he no longer represents change.

A Sanders candidacy would radically increase the proportion of young voters, who wouldn’t take the trouble to vote for an establishment candidate.

From a purely demographic point of view, the young — like ethnic minorities — are always likely to be more favorable to Democrats. The Clinton campaign in 2016 counted on the fact that youth would not vote for Trump and had every reason to prefer Clinton. Many of them probably did prefer Clinton, but didn’t bother to vote. The results of the election demonstrated that if the nominee is just a reassuring name rather than someone ready to address real-word urgent problems such as health care, climate change and student debt, a good proportion of the young simply will not make the effort to vote.

But the problem isn’t merely generational. Real Clear Politics revealed this week a serious study that shows “Democrats and Republicans across every generation say they are dissatisfied with the state of our political system.” It found that “84% agreed that ‘the country is run by an alliance of politicians, media pundits, lobbyists and other moneyed interest groups for their own gain at the expense of the American people.’” The assumption that voters will embrace the most attractive candidate that represents that kind of establishment “alliance” has become something akin to a suicidal illusion.

Trump created the illusion that he isn’t part of the alliance. Whether he can maintain it or not after proving that he is at the core of the moneyed interests will depend on his very real, but not necessarily invincible marketing skills.

Historical Note

NBC’s Jonathan Allen, cited above, assesses what he sees as the major lesson of the first Democratic primary: “The Iowa caucuses in particular quickly become a metaphor for those who believe the party is not only lost and leaderless, but relying on questionable tools to find its way out of the political wilderness.”

The article cites a Democratic fundraiser, Robert Wolf: “Our party’s still relatively fractured, with two lanes.” But this and its disastrous effects on the Democrats’ chances of winning any election should have been observable by anyone with eyes to see ever since at least John Kerry’s ignominious defeat against an unpopular George W. Bush in 2004. The Democrats could have mobilized the discomfort so many Americans — and particularly the youth — were feeling with Bush’s already discredited and disastrous wars in the Middle East, coupled with his tax breaks for the wealthy. Kerry had a reputation inherited from his own youth of opposing unjust wars. But he hadn’t opposed Bush’s wars and had no capacity to excite the young. He was simply a safe establishment figure.

Four years later, a relatively unknown black Democrat from Illinois did three major things to create enthusiasm, paving the way for his election. As a black man, Obama symbolized the challenge to a sclerotic tradition, a breakthrough that could give new meaning to US democracy. Secondly, he cleverly focused on the theme of hope and change, making no specific promises and refusing to enter into the bean-counting logic — now insisted on by establishment Democrats — of costing the ambitious initiatives changes he was invoking. (He easily neutralized rival John McCain’s “Joe the plumber” ploy.)

Finally, he expertly mobilized energies across the social networks to spread his message to create enthusiasm. And of course it worked, even though, once in office, he effectuated little change and stifled a lot of the hope he had exploited to achieve victory.

If the Democrats are in disarray, it may be because they keep returning to the same stale formulas for a hoped-for success they haven’t achieved since 1992, when the imposing presence of a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, split the Republican vote and opened an avenue for Bill Clinton’s victory. In other words, given the fluke that got Clinton elected, their model for victory dates at best from Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976. But that too was a fluke, since it was the direct consequence of the Republican humiliation of Watergate.

In other words, the last time a coherent, traditional establishment strategy worked for the Democrats in a presidential election was 1964, the year when Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater while at the same time throwing the nation into the chaos of the Vietnam War. It may have been his need to prove himself a strong, militaristic president — but not as extreme as Goldwater — that, during the campaign, impelled him to engage irrevocably in a war that ended up ruining his presidency and doing serious damage to the nation.

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One realistic reading of the history of the Democratic Party since the middle of the 20th century would be that the party is quite simply a well-honed tool to validate and support a variant of the permanent Republican agenda for the governance of the nation. When the Democrats have been in power, their politics have largely conformed to Republican models, with the added window dressing of social modernism. With the exception of Obama’s surprising coup in 2008 that allowed him to overtake the Clintonite establishment and reveal the real potential of a populist Democratic electoral base, Democrats have either failed to defeat Republicans or, when electorally successful, found a way of capitulating to what the public perceives as the Republican agenda. Clinton and Obama were both, in a very real sense, Republican presidents. They made a point of showing an appetite for resistance but inevitably fell into line.

Donald Trump inaugurated a trend no one had previously imagined, government by billionaires and media celebrities, combining both in his person. The billionaires and their corporations already governed every aspect of the economic and political system, but far from the spotlight. Now it seems that a significant number of voters see the election of a billionaire as a curious form of transparency. The reasoning could go something like this: If the billionaires are going to run our lives, let’s at least be able watch them as they do it. So the Democrats are now toying with the idea of offering the job to Tom Steyer or Michael Bloomberg. They would have drafted Oprah Winfrey had she been willing.

But the young are less fascinated or reassured by the billionaires. That means that the Democrats are ideally looking for someone else. With Biden fading, maybe it will be John Kerry. Some have suggested a third chance for Hillary Clinton. Jonathan Allen suggests that for Democrats to beat Trump it “might require ripping up their own playbook.” But proverbial wisdom reminds us that old habits die hard and you can’t teach an old [donkey] new tricks. 

[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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