Why Did the Democratic Establishment Push the Doomsday Button? And Are We Doomed?
Everyone knows that the Democratic Establishment doesn't want Bernie Sanders to win the nomination, and everyone knows that the Democratic Establishment did a lot to try to stop him in both 2016 and 2020.
But most people don't understand -- and can't comprehend -- that the Democratic Establishment would rather LOSE to Trump than win with Bernie -- even though a second Trump administration would doom many people individually, many of our democratic institutions collectively, and perhaps even the Democratic Party itself.
So who is the Democratic Establishment? Why did they just push the Doomsday Button, setting in motion a series of events that will most likely lead to Trump's re-election? How could they do such a thing? And are we now doomed?
Who Is The Democratic Establishment?
The Democratic Establishment* is made of up politicians, donors, lobbyists, campaign managers, consultants, journalists, party committee members, and think tank personnel. They move freely among these roles. Howard Dean, for example, was a Governor of Vermont, then head of the DNC, and now a health care industry lobbyist.
The Democratic Establishment doesn't meet in a room and vote on things. The Democratic National Committee, for example, has over hundreds of members, and infrequently meets. Beyond the DNC, there are state committees, big donors, media commentators, political operatives, and unofficial advisors. But they communicate with each the same ways that all communities do, and especially through the mass media, where they test and share consensus views.
These Democratic Establishment types are all very good, well-meaning people sincerely trying to make the world better based on a social vision that is more compassionate and less hateful than what animates the Republican Party and its operatives. I do not accuse these pushers-of-the-Doomsday-Button of bad intentions.
However, there are two problems with what they are doing.
First, their shared views sometimes veer from reality. Like all insular elite groups, they live in a self-referencing bubble of confirmation bias. As a result, they reinforce each other's views in a spectacular demonstration of mass group-think.
But again, group-think is common among all kinds of communities; it's not because the Democratic Establishment are bad people. I don't read Paul Krugman every day, but I probably would if I were Democratic political operative, and Paul Krugman knows who his audience is and cares about their reactions. So they form their own bubble of truth. But it's not an especially true truth, as we learned in 2016, when they were certain, and voiced in unison, and placed a big bet, against the evidence, that Clinton was certain to defeat Trump.
Second, they are deeply self--interested in the political process, which means that they may sometimes look like impartial observers but in fact they have deep conflicts of interest.
Here's how it works. The career opportunities in the Democratic Establishment depend upon specific political outcomes. If a Democrat takes the White House, there suddenly become available a LOT of jobs in federal government, plus appointments to influential committees and commissions, and the members of the Democratic Establishment are first in line. Even if a particular Democratic operative does not end up serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Whatever, or leading the President's Task Force on Re-Thinking Something Else, then their friends are in those roles, which gives them access and influence, which not only feels good, but can be monetized.
If a Republican takes the White House, that's much worse. But the Democratic Establishment members are used to it. When they are in the opposition, fundraising is good, as their constituents try to regain power -- indeed, the opposition was simply awash in cash after Trump was elected -- and there is much campaigning and strategizing to do. That's much worse than winning the White House, but still okay from a career standpoint.
But what is entirely unacceptable is if some outsider like Bernie Sanders wins the White House. Then everything goes to Hell. There are plenty of federal jobs and task-force appointments, but they go to strangers -- insurgents and grass-roots activists. Even the crumbs of access vanish, because the new insiders are strangers. Under a Sanders administration, the old Democratic Establishment lacks influence and lacks opportunity. They are suddenly unwelcome in the familiar places that they used to think of as home. They might even have to get a real job. It's very painful to contemplate.
That's why MSNBC's Chris Matthews, shortly before he was forced to resign for letting his anti-Sanders bias get out of control in embarrassing ways, asked whether the Democrats would rather just let Trump win and take their chances on an Establishment-favored candidate in four years, rather than letting Sanders get the nomination and become President? Matthews was giving voice to a forbidden longing in the hearts of many Establishment Democrats.
If you think I am exaggerating, listen to Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times last month about the impact of a potential Sanders administration:
To be honest, a Sanders administration would probably leave center-left policy wonks like me out in the cold, at least initially. And if a President Sanders or his advisers say things I think are foolish, I won’t pretend otherwise in an attempt to ingratiate myself.
This is ALWAYS a primary concern of the Democratic Establishment -- Where do I fit in? Who will listen to me? What will I be able to influence? How will I ingratiate myself?
So they REALLY don't want a Sanders administration.
Krugman was writing consolation words about the the bad thing that was about to happen to him and his fellow Democratic operatives if Sanders got the nomination. Which looked inevitable, unless somebody pushed the Doomsday Button.
But Krugman, unlike others, was willing to adapt to the new world. And why not? Krugman is a Nobel-prize winning economist with a permanent job at the New York Times. He would be fine in a Sanders administration. He was trying to convince his colleagues that they would be fine, too.
But he did not succeed. Too many did not see it that way. And so, about a week later, they pushed the Doomsday Button.
The Stop Bernie Movement
Establishment fear is why there has been a fully-baked "Stop Bernie" movement working behind the scenes all year. In 2016, the Establishment was caught off guard by Bernie's campaign. They weren't prepared for Bernie's success. Their panicked responses, as documented in leaked emails, were crude, spawned lawsuits, and got everyone in a good bit of trouble.
So in 2020 the Establishment was better prepared. But so was Bernie. Thus, we braced for a Titanic Battle, and we got one.
The Establishment's first move was to encourage an unprecedentedly large cast of characters to run, including many who promised to peel off slivers of Sanders' progressive base -- a black woman, a gay millennial, a telegenic Texan, an Obama administration Latino, etc. And they made sure those candidates had plenty of funding.
The Establishment's second move was to have a large number of Presidential debates, with a large number of candidates on stage -- typically 10+. Instead of denying Bernie the ability to debate, like in 2016, they drowned him in debaters, so Bernie couldn't get much air time.
The Establishment's third move was to effect a Media Blackout -- sometimes called "The Bernie Blackout" or "Bernie Blindness" -- where corporate media simply refused to cover the Sanders campaign. Or if they did cover it, they did so negatively or inaccurately, for example, displaying graphics that showed Bernie polling lower than he was. (For an overwhelming list of examples -- more than could possibly be chance or error -- check here.)
That might have been enough to stop Bernie, but if it wasn't they had more tricks planned.
For example, when none of the other candidates caught fire, two new candidates were added -- Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg spent $600M in a short time in order to reshuffle the race.
And once Sanders could no longer be ignored, the media coverage turned intensely hostile.
But Sanders developed his own online media and his own fundraising, both of which were superior to that of any other candidate (except the two self-funding billionaires). Barnstorming from state to state leading packed rallies, Sanders met with many thousands of voters in person each day, with even more watching online.
Then, when Sanders won the popular vote in all three of the first nominating contests, with increasing margins and even a landslide in Nevada, the Democratic Establishment panicked and pushed the Doomsday Button.
The Doomsday Button
There was risk in trying to drown Bernie in Establishment-sponsored candidates. If Bernie was able to survive the various tests, and none of the other candidates caught on, then Bernie might benefit from having a fractured opposition.
That is in fact what happened, and the Democratic Establishment had two ways of dealing with that, but both of them constituted "Doomsday" options, in that they could succeed in stopping Bernie, but only at great risk of re-electing Donald Trump.
Doomsday Option 1. Their first Doomsday option was to use SuperDelegates at the National Convention to select a nominee other than Bernie, even if the alternate nominee got fewer votes than Bernie had, or no votes at all. That would be possible if Bernie ended up winning only a plurality, not a majority of delegates, which seemed quite likely, as long as 4-5 other candidates remained in the race. The Democratic Elite even discussed allowing SuperDelegates to vote on the first round, thus blocking Sanders EVEN if he managed to gain a majority.
The problem with installing a candidate at the National Convention was that it would look terribly undemocratic, and the eventual nominee would appear to be illegitimate. Significant numbers of voters who would have supported Bernie would no doubt sit out based on the DNC's "corruption," costing the Democrats the election. Moreover, after Bloomberg's candidacy exploded, there was no obvious person to select.
Perhaps the greatest risk of all would be to the Democratic Party itself, which could see mass defections and third-party and Independent challenges if it blatantly overruled the will of its voters.
Doomsday Option 2. Their second option was to drop the pretense of a competitive primary, and have all remaining candidates drop about and endorse the strongest of Sanders' opponents. The goal would be to give the remaining candidate a boost of momentum sufficient to take and hold the lead, denying Sanders even a plurality.
The problem with having everyone drop out simultaneously and endorse the remaining candidate was not so much that it would look like a fix -- although is most certainly did look like a fix. Candidates dropping out the day after SuperTuesday (like Warren and Bloomberg did) would be perfectly normal. Dropping out the day before (like Klobuchar and Buttigieg did) would be highly unusual. But despite the obvious signs of backroom maneuvering, nobody ever really doubted where the Democratic Establishment stood. Chris Matthews, Paul Krugman, and Bernie Sanders himself had been very clear about it.
The problem, instead, was that the remaining candidate STILL might not be strong enough to defeat Bernie, even with a slew of endorsements. Worse still, giving Bernie's campaign a single target to shoot at, instead of five, would actually help Bernie sharpen his case. Worst of all, this was a "Hail Mary" move from which there would be no going back. If Bernie were able to defeat this Final Boss, then there would be no plausible way to deny Bernie the nomination.
So there would have to be a media blitz to bury Bernie's campaign so quickly and thoroughly that there could be no recovery -- easy enough to execute, but not certain to work.
Another problem was that none of the remaining candidates was very strong. Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Warren, and Bloomberg all had badly declining numbers and no plausible path forward. Which left Joe Biden, who had just won a landslide in South Carolina, but after disastrous finishes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Biden's standing was in deep decline, too, but his win in South Carolina could drive a media narrative about comebacks, and with endorsements and a media blitz, he could conceivably defeat Sanders on SuperTuesday -- especially if Warren stayed in the race and split the progressive vote.
The reason this was a Doomsday Option instead of just a clever trick, is because, although there was a decent chance that the Democrats could galvanize support for Biden within the confines of the Democratic Primary -- the odds of Biden's beating Trump in the general election were not strong.
Biden's campaign had little sense of purpose or vision. Biden was erratic and gaffe-prone at campaign appearances. His debate performances were consistently weak. And worst of all, he had a 50-year record of votes and quotes that were safe at the time but looked very bad in retrospect, including positions on War, Free Trade, and Civil Rights that Trump would pound mercilessly. But that's not all. Biden had famously praised segregationists and opposed school desegregation, which could depress turnout among Democrats. And Hunter Biden's financial enterprises would simultaneously hand Trump a potent weapon, and prevent Biden from effectively challenging Trump's actual, serious cronyism and corruption. In short, Biden would be running on a platform not too different from Hillary Clinton's but without Clinton's smarts or savvy, and without Clinton's women's movement behind her, and with very serious political baggage, but against a Trump who was much, much stronger than in 2016 -- Trump would have the power of incumbency, a rabidly whipped up base that never ever deserts him, and all the money in the world.
It was a recipe for electoral disaster.
So the Democrats had a choice: Allow Bernie to continue on track to the become the nominee, or seriously risk losing to Trump in the general election by forcing Biden in the primary.
And that's when they pushed the button.
Why Did They Push The Doomsday Button?
We have already shown that a Trump re-election isn't nearly as bad an outcome for the Democratic Establishment as would be a Sanders presidency. So the Establishment's worst-case scenario was averted.
Moreover, there were many ways that the Establishment could rationalize to themselves that they had done the right thing.
First and foremost, they would say, and sincerely believe, that there was no way that Sanders could beat Trump because Sanders is a Democratic Socialist, and America simply would not elect such a person under any circumstances. Indeed, they might say, if Sanders were allowed to be the candidate, Trump would whip his followers into an even greater frenzy, and even grow his base if that were possible, simply by reciting "Socialism, Communism, Sanders" at every turn.
Moreover, the Democratic Establishment would tell themselves, a whipped up Republican base would drive anti-Democratic turnout down ticket, preventing the Democrats from re-taking the Senate, and maybe even costing Democrats the House.
If a Trump victory at the hands of Biden were the cost of preventing an even greater Trump victory at the hands of Sanders, so be it, they no doubt said.
And we don't have to guess whether they thought such things, because they repeated them every day in every appearance.
Were They Right to Push the Button?
I think they probably pretty sincerely believed that Sanders would lose to Trump. However, the evidence is quite to the contrary.
First, the historic precedent just isn't there. Franklin Roosevelt was elected four times, and Sanders' policies are basically the same as Roosevelt's, updated with some additional civil rights and environmental proposals that are not controversial with Americans.
The frequent comparisons with 1972 are not apt at all, because Nixon was popular with a good economy, and McGovern was hobbled by dirty tricks and in other ways that Sanders is not. If anything, the historical record says that it is moderates that tend to lose.
Second, the "radical" nature of Sanders' proposals just isn't real. Sanders isn't a real socialist -- he is not talking about nationalizing industries or confiscating assets. Again, his proposals are more rooted in our traditional past than in any radical future. Americans recognize this, which is why his policies receive such broad support.
Third, the risk that Trump will ignite opposition by red-baiting around Sanders supposed socialism is not serious. The Republicans call every Democrat a socialist. They said it about Obama non-stop through two elections. The National Review is already revving up to call Biden a socialist. In other words, Trump's base is already whipped up, Independents don't buy the smear, and in any case it wouldn't be much different if Biden were nominated.
Fourth, the down-ballot effect of having Sanders on the ticket is likely going to be positive, not negative. Sanders' platform, and Sanders' energized army of supporters, have the strong potential to generate a wave election unlike any America has seen, washing Republicans out of power, and not only holding the House, but delivering to Democrats the Senate and statehouses around the country. That's because Sanders' program has the ability to inspire voters who otherwise would not vote at all, and he has an unprecedented army of volunteers mobilized to advocate for those proposals.
The Democratic Establishment likes to say that because young people did not come out in force on SuperTuesday, that they won't come out in November, either. There are a number of flaws in this reasoning. First, young people did come out in greater numbers; but the many competing campaigns embraced by the Democratic Establishment ALSO brought out more older voters as well. Second, Sanders drove turnout even in the face of a media roar claiming that Sanders was dangerously unelectable. If the Democratic Establishment and corporate media were not aggressively opposing Sanders, his efforts obviously would be more successful.
But perhaps most of all, getting people out to vote for a primary is much more difficult than getting people to vote in a general election. Among other things, many of Sanders' target voters are Independents, not registered Democrats, and thus the people most important to winning the general election have barriers to voting now that won't be present in November. Plus, in November, there will be only two clear choices, not the confusing cacophony that the Democratic Party orchestrated for all but the last three days before SuperTuesday. Finally, theories aside, there are the actual polls, and more polls, which consistently show Sanders not only beating Trump in the general election, but Sanders beating Trump by as much or more than the other candidates do. That's true both in national polls, and in battle ground states.
To say all the polls are wrong, you have to have some theory as to why that would be. But it's hard to come up with a convincing theory when you realize that Sanders is an Independent who is skeptical of both parties. Most Americans, too, are Independents who are skeptical of both parties. It makes logical sense that Sanders would uniquely appeal to the largest part of the electorate -- the part that decides general elections.
On the flip side of that, Biden is simply a weak candidate. His inability to impress his own party in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada was an emergency warning, disregarded. Worse, his two prior failed campaigns provide strong support for the theory that Biden has never had the strength to win a Presidential contest.
And this clip documents Biden's history of lies and plagiarism -- which drove him out of the 1988 Presidential race. But the Biden fabrications continue to this day. On February 19, 2020, Biden falsely claimed he was arrested in the streets of South Africa visiting Nelson Mandela, and won a Pants-on-Fire-Liar award from PolitiFact. This material will be a delectable meal for the Trump campaign. Democrats may disregard it, but it will circulate endlessly on social media, where it will enrage Trump loyalists, and discourage the Independents whose vote Trump will be trying to suppress in November.
The fake socialist claims that Republicans will hurl at Sanders' real FDR policies will simply pale compared to the real claims that Republicans will hurl at Biden based on Biden's past policies unfavorable to blacks, women, workers, and the elderly. And that's in addition to Biden's demonstrated deficits as an inarticulate-or-worse campaigner with an uninspiring platform.
So Are We Doomed?
Only the weakest candidate could have lost to Trump in 2016, which was why the Democratic Establishment assured its voters that Clinton could win despite her unprecedented negative favorability ratings. And indeed Clinton could have won, but just barely did not.
2020 is a different challenge entirely, though. Trump's favorability ratings, although low, have not fluctuated at all. He can maintain a solid 40% floor no matter how he lies, how he is attacked, whether he is impeached. Nothing seems to matter.
What that says is that Trump has enveloped his supporters in a puncture-proof propaganda bubble, and it doesn't matter many negative attacks the Democratic candidate launches. So a negative, anti-Trump campaign won't do much.
Moreover, not only does Trump have a full-power turnout engine, this time Trump also has the power of incumbency, and unlimited money. So Trump is a much more formidable opponent in 2020 than he was in 2016.
Biden, by contrast, is running on the same platform as Clinton (Obama's third term), but Biden is a much weaker candidate than Clinton was. He is not as sharp, he is not as good a debater, he has a worse personal and political history, and he lacks a women's movement behind him.
Biden won't necessarily lose to Trump, just as Clinton did not have to lose to Trump.
But the risk of Biden losing is high -- very high -- because he simply has no way to positively inspire independent and infrequent voters. Trump hatred will have to be enough, and it might not be.
But at least Bernie won't be President.
Is There Any Hope?
On the other hand, the Democratic Establishment's Doomsday maneuver might fail. Most of the delegates remain unallocated, and there is plenty of time for Sanders to catch up and overtake Biden, if America comes to its senses in time and realizes that they are being sold a bad idea for a bad reason.
The non-Establishment parts of the Democratic Party are rapidly coalescing around Sanders -- Jesse Jackson, Democracy for America, and the Working Families Party have all endorsed Sanders in recent days, in part because Warren did not stay in the race. Although Warren has not endorsed Sanders, she has created space for others to do so.
If Sanders DOES take the lead, then the Doomsday Button will be defused, Sanders will win the nomination, and Sanders' platform carried by Sanders' army will inspire a wave election that washes Trump and McConnell from office.
If Biden instead pulls far ahead in delegates but continues in his gaffe-prone way, or if the signs of Biden's cognitive decline become disqualifying to more people, the race could change again, allowing Sanders to gain the nomination.
But voters panicky about a coronavirus pandemic may be drawn to a choice that feels safe, even if it is in fact very risky.
And with the Democratic Establishment repeating the mantra "Biden is safe, Biden is electable" constantly on television, reinforced by millions of dollars in dark-money SuperPAC advertising blanketing the country during the upcoming primaries, it won't be too surprising if Democratic voters conclude that Biden IS safe and Biden IS electable, despite the available evidence to the contrary.
The Democratic Establishment sold voters on a weak candidate in 2016. They're doing it again in 2020. It's not over yet, but they pushed the button, and voters don't have months, or even weeks, to stop the Doomsday Machine.
Hours or days, at most.
* MSNBC talking head David Corn, Washington Bureau Chief for Mother Jones, and member of the Democratic Establishment, says there is no such thing as the Democratic Establishment. Just because they don't have membership cards and meet in a room to vote on their support for Biden does not mean that they do not nonetheless build consensus among themselves and then attempt to spread those opinions among the broader population with shared talking points and referencing each other as authorities. Indeed, that's how consensus forms in all communities and organizations. In any case, the rapid and near-simultaneous withdrawals of Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, who then endorsed Biden, a day before the SuperTuesday instead of afterwards, followed by a large number of other endorsements (like Beto, Booker, and Harris) shows a behind-the-scenes coordinated effort to consolidate the corporate wing of the Democratic Party around Biden. There is no doubt that the Democratic Establishment exists. It not only exists, its members command huge resources, and they deploy them in concert.