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About that debate in Las Vegas and the state of the campaign

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

Fear and trembling. I am plagued by nightmares of a Democratic convention where the options come down to Red Bernie and Bloomberg the oligarch. Tuesday's debate, as anxiety inducing as it was captivating, did little to pacify my troubled mind. The plan was to catch the first hour or so, long enough to get a feel for Michael Bloomberg and the impact he would have, break for dinner, then adjourn to the sofa with a glass of wine and the evening's mystery novel. The plan soon went awry and I was sucked in for the duration.

Bloomberg's rationale for throwing his tarnished hat into the ring is that the division of the moderate vote among multiple candidates will ensure the nominee will be a socialist who cannot defeat Trump. How the addition of another moderate into the mix, one whose deep pockets are matched by some very heavy baggage, does anything but further divide the moderate vote escapes me. Maybe that is why he is the billionaire and I am your oft humbled scribe.

Now come reports that his strategy is to promote himself to party officials and big donors as the alternate to Sanders at a brokered convention. What kind of disaster could it be if this strategy proves successful? Let me count the ways.

Sanders would surely not go gently into any good night. At the close of Wednesday's debate, when asked if the person who arrives at the convention with the most delegates should automatically be the nominee even if no one has a majority, five of the six people on stage said convention rules should determine the outcome. Sanders said that "the will of the people should prevail" and "the person with the most votes should be the nominee." Okay, it is in the self-interest of those five to put forward the position they did because Sanders is highly likely to go into the convention having won the most votes in the primaries and with the most delegates in tow. It is not unreasonable to wonder which of them would sing a different tune if projected to come to the convention with the most votes but less than a majority of delegates.

Perhaps Bernie should be called on to explain in what sense a plurality, less than a majority and possibly as little at 35 to 40 percent of votes and delegates, represents the will of the people. It might simply show that the will of the people is is deeply divided and perhaps even suggest that the will of the people is for a candidate other than Bernie Sanders, even though "the people" do not agree who that should be.

The likelihood that a segment of the Bernie faithful will walk away rather than back another nominee is more than an idle concern. At Jacobin, "a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture," the argument is made that no one should vote for Bloomberg if he captures the nomination (Burgis, Bloomberg Is Not a Lesser Evil); paranoia and the persecution complex within the Sanders camp are fed by the charge that Bloomberg's billions will be a weapon for Sanders' opponents (Katch, Bloomberg Isn't Going Anywhere); and in Las Vegas only Bernie stood for democracy while others favored rule by plutocratic elites (Savage, Only Bernie Chose Democracy).

Another recent article in that publication labeled Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar center-right candidates. Center-right? This is the kind of thinking we will be up against come the convention and the fall campaign if the nominee is anyone other than Sanders. Perhaps we should brace for it.

My point here is not to single out Jacobin for criticism. The articles cited are representative of the ideological rigidity that marks a committed and significant faction among Sanders' supporters, not all of them, and I would not hazard a guess as to the number, but certainly too many to be dismissed. This will present a formidable obstacle for any other nominee, whoever that might be, in what figures to be a tight race. A Bloomberg nomination secured at a brokered, bitterly contested convention would deliver a candidate widely reviled throughout the Democratic Party, not just by the Bernie bros. The challenge of keeping everyone on board for the main mission, the one that unites most of us, putting an end to the Trump regime, will be daunting.

The Democratic field found common ground Tuesday night as they tore into Bloomberg with an animus the New York billionaire earned with his record and his barefaced effort to buy the nomination. A few examples provide a taste.

Amy Klobuchar pointedly said she would like to see Bloomberg's tax returns. Mayor Mike lamely responded that he's working on it, it's complicated, he can't just use TurboTax. Sanders pointed out that he has more wealth than the bottom however many million Ameircans it is. The mayor said he earned it, he worked hard for it. Buttigieg hit the mayor's party affiliation, which shifts as convenience dictates: "Let's put forward someone who is actually a Democrat."

Biden went after him on stop and frisk. The mayor's responses were somewhat misleading, to put it charitably. He claimed that the stop-and-frisk policy he inherited when he became mayor "got out of control" and he cut 95 percent of it. Per "That’s true if comparing the number of stops in the first quarter of 2012 with the last quarter of 2013, but the stops rose 600% in his first 10 years in office. They were twice as high in the year he left office than when he began."

Elizabeth Warren lashed Bloomberg on multiple counts with the righteous passion that brings out the best in her as a champion for ordinary people struggling to provide a decent life for themselves and their families. She said on Thursday morning, "I have really had it with billionaires, regardless of party, who think that the rules don't apply to them. Billionaires who think their money buys them something special" (Thompson, 'RIP fluffy Warren').

Other impressions from Las Vegas. Sanders rebutted Bloomberg's sophomoric equation of socialism with communism, diplomatically dubbing it a cheap shot:

"Let's talk about Democratic socialism—not communism, Mr. Bloomberg, that's a cheap shot. Let's talk about what goes on in countries like Denmark, where Pete correctly pointed out, they have a much higher quality of life in many respects than we do.

"We are living, in many ways, in a socialist society right now. Problem is, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, we have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor."

Pete Buttigieg unimpressed me with his own cheap shots at Amy Klobuchar and disingenuous attacks on Sanders (to be fair, Sanders did not exactly keep to the high road with some of his shots at Mayor Pete). He understandably gets miffed when people harp on his youth and lack of experience, but it seems to bug him more when it comes from Klobuchar. For her part, she is clearly irked by the facile anti-Washington rhetoric that ignores decent, honorable people in Congress and in the federal bureaucracy who are fighting the good fight and who take their stand with integrity when conscience calls for it. These people have names like Amy Klobuchar, Nancy Pelosi, Tim Kaine, Marie Yovanovitch, Alexander Vindman, and Fiona Hill. They have names like Elissa Slotkin (MI), Joe Cunningham (SC), and Ben McAdams (UT), who voted for impeachment while representing districts that went for Trump in 2016.

Bernie Sanders denounced in no uncertain terms online threats and harassment of the opposition by some of his supporters. The denunciation could have come sooner, but I won't quibble about that. Biden came down hard on Sanders earlier in the week after the dustup with the Nevada Culinary Union, demanding accountability and calling for him to disown those responsible. At the debate Buttigieg took up the demand for accountability with pitbullish tenacity. Biden and Buttigieg are right but…Yes, Sanders bears responsibility for what comes out of his campaign. However, no campaign can control all of its supporters. There are a lot of blockheads and bad actors out there. Each candidate, however committed to a campaign that conducts itself honorably and with integrity, could acknowledge that there but for grace of God go I.

Part of the problem for Sanders is that a portion of his support comes from a faction within the progressive movement that sees as its mission the destruction of politicians deemed moderate or centrist or otherwise insufficiently committed to their agenda. The more radical among them believe that there is no substantive difference between the Democratic and Republican parties because they simply represent two wings of the business party. I am sorely tempted to refer to them as the neo-Bolshevik faction, but that would be needlessly provocative.

Bloomberg was not chastened by what was almost universally deemed an awful debate performance. The following day he tweeted a deceptively edited video giving the appearance that his competitors were reduced to confused, extended silence by his statement that he was the only one on stage who had ever started a business (Paul, Bloomberg debate video; Ward, Bloomberg tweeted, includes a clip of what actually happened), as if having started a business ipso facto qualifies him to be president, or not having done so is a strike against. The video is not the work of some overenthusiastic Bloomby bro. This is the ugly campaign Bloomberg is running.

Looking back at New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders got 60 percent of the vote in New Hampshire in 2016 in what was essentially a two-person race. This year he corralled 76,324 votes, 25.7 percent, to Pete Buttigieg's 72,457, 24.4 percent, a clear win for Sanders but far from a blowout. A different picture emerges when we compare the combined vote for Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, 131,253 (44.8 percent), with the total for Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, 103,711 (35.4 percent). Biden, Steyer, Gabbard, Yang, and assorted write-ins made up the remaining 58,067 (19.8 percent) of the votes cast. Vote tally per PBS NewsHour New Hampshire Primary Results.

That 19.8 percent cluster of "others" is sizable, but there is no way to know how they would have cast their votes in a two- or four-person race. My conclusion is that Bernie is benefiting from the dynamics of the race, not from a left/populist uprising that will propel him to the White House in November. This is not to argue that he cannot win the nomination or in November, only that the aura of historical inevitability being projected by the Sandersistas is open to question.

None of this serves as an antidote to my eternal pessimism. 'Tis caucus day in Nevada. We will see where things stand when the votes are tallied. Then on to South Carolina, where I was born and raised.

Keep the faith.


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