No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. So goes a 19th century military maxim.
In the first round of Democratic debates last week, Democrats met the enemy and discovered that, in the deathless words of a 20th century cartoonist, it is us, and the battle plan that many Democrats thought was the winning one for the 2020 election lay in shambles.
That battle plan depended on the party’s resisting the leftward lurch prefigured by the self-described “progressives” among its presidential hopefuls, and nominating, after the usual internecine sturm und drang, a moderate who could appeal to independents and those legions of thoughtful Republicans who, despite their lowered tax rates and largely fulfilled fantasies of Supreme Court domination, are appalled by Trump’s bellicose antics and moral nihilism and long for a plausible alternative.
Such a nominee would carry Pennsylvania and the upper Midwestern states so crucial to victory in the Electoral College while consolidating coastal and urban Democratic strongholds. He or she would avoid pandering to the illiberal instincts currently animating identity politics and speak unapologetically to the 56% of American voters who are over the age of 50 and would prefer that as a nation we maintain at least the fiction of civic unity and common purpose.*
He or she would make an inclusive, pragmatic policy package the keystone of her campaign, and avoid the personality wars that Trump revels in and often wins. She would understand that “socialism,” for a large part of her target constituency, is a synonym for repression rather than compassion. She would understand that, to the older generations who make up the majority of voters, student debt forgiveness is an insulting repudiation of the rules of hard work and prudent planning that governed their entire lives. She would embrace a frankly incremental, fiscally conservative approach to attacking the great public challenges of the day – health care, climate change — rather than declare that utopia can be ours if only the one percent were adequately taxed.
Until last Thursday night, this plan seemed not only viable, but rather obviously superior to one that relies on galvanizing the transient social passions of millennials and Gen X-ers, who in any event often forget to vote when the chips are down.
But during the debates, it became sickeningly clear that not one of the “progressive” candidates – Bernie, Elizabeth, Beto, Cory, Kamala, and the rest — was going to moderate his or her views and attempt to merge into the political center lane, but rather was sticking with the rhetorical flights and fiscal fantasies that had gotten them attention in the first place.
And then there was Joe Biden, who should have been that moderate flag-bearer and should have been the best-prepared of any of the contestants (for that’s what they looked like all crammed together up there, raising their hands when told to – contestants in a game show). Biden looked stunned by Kamala Harris’s opportunistic busing ambush, eager to cop out of answers by pretending to have run out of time, deeply uncomfortable, verbally muddled and mentally fogged. Feeble, was the word that finally came to mind as you watched him glancing this way and that as though no one had told him all these jazzed-up folks would be there talking at him. Feeble and too old.
And there went the winning plan. For if not Biden, who? The rest of the presumed moderates –Hickenlooper, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, etc. are too bland or too ideologically compromised, and all are simply too unknown. We tend to forget that Trump resided in the American consciousness for the full decade of his TV show career, and we tend to underestimate how much that fact outweighed, in the minds of the non-college graduates who make up over 60% of the electorate, his utter lack of discipline, moral compass, or experience in public service. Fame is its own justification, and but for Biden, the moderate Democratic candidates lack it precisely because they are moderates.
So if Biden is not to be the Democratic presidential nominee, what is Plan B?
Kamala Harris is the darling of the moment, rising suddenly in the polls to almost equal Biden. But what jaded political junkie among us believes not only that a woman can be elected president of this stubbornly misogynistic nation, but that a black woman with attitude can? This notion plays well on Rachel Maddow and in the millennial towers of San Francisco, but not in the critical swing states on the Electoral College map.
Likewise Pete Buttigieg, by far the most articulate, cerebral, and plausibly moderate of all the candidates, is far too young and too candidly gay to attract a majority of the aging and socially conservative electorate in the swing states. Would that we could transplant his brain into Biden’s body – now there would be a winner.
If you asked any of the progressive Democrats in front of a microphone why they persist in their leftist pitch when demographics and the Electoral College map indicate it is a losing strategy, they would of course say “principle” – that is, that they would rather be right than President, and they are running to inject undiluted idealism, for a change, into the “discussion.”
But with the microphones turned off, in the privacy of the strategy sessions with their handlers, presumably they believe in a sub-strategy, and that must be the strategy of the Election Day Surprise, when, as in 2016, the electorate behaves counterintuitively and embraces a set of values that would seem to be antithetical to their interests and their temperament. This surprise would entail a massive turnout of the millennial voters who stayed away from the polls in record numbers in 2016, a defection of evangelicals from Trump’s base in some Rapture-like recalling to the actual principles of Christianity, and/or the belated realization by the majority of white women, who voted for Trump, that he really doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
But a baseless belief in the unlikely isn’t really a strategy, is it?
I know thoughtful, engaged Democrats who believe that almost anyone can beat Trump as long as he or she can walk and chew gum at the same time, and almost any policy package a candidate might espouse is fine, but almost beside the point. They point to polls that indicate Trump is one of the most unpopular presidents in American history, and believe that that equates to an equivalent proportion of votes against him on election day. They believe that many who voted for Trump were not actually voting for him, but against Hillary Clinton, an unpopular figure, a relic of the past, who campaigned badly and unaccountably ignored the upper Midwest, yet only lost that region to Trump by a mere 77,000 votes. Hence, this time, Democrats will turn out, at least some Republicans will see the error of their choice, the black vote for someone like Harris will rival Obama’s turnout, and Trump will become the most welcome one-term president since Herbert Hoover.
But all this assumes that polling reflects voting reality, a fallacy that 2016 should have branded on our collective consciousness forever. It assumes that Democrats will nominate someone who will not alienate a significant portion of their natural base and give millions of people who dislike Trump an excuse to not to vote at all, as Hillary did in 2016. It assumes that Electoral College demographics are trending in the Democrats’ favor, when the opposite — increasingly aged voting populations concentrated in swing states — is actually happening.
Who would have thought, when the first human being set foot on the moon 50 years ago this month, before half of the Democratic hopefuls were born, that in the twentieth year of the twenty-first century, race would still be at the forefront of public angst, women’s reproductive rights would be under greater attack than when Armstrong made his one small step, the diplomatic and military alliances our fathers secured with their blood and treasure would be seen as so much excess baggage, our southern border would be dotted with concentration camps, and our President would claim being well-liked by murderous dictators was a foreign policy success? We always overestimate the rate of human progress, and underestimate not only the drag of the past, but the political viscosity of the present.
We are mired in that present, where Trump would hold us as he preens in its glare. We cannot see beyond it, no matter how urgently the progressives call us to. But we’ve learned this cynicism honestly, and need an utter pragmatist, the political equivalent of a plumber, to repair by small but cumulative fixes the mess we’re in. Instead we get the old, easy appeals to revolutionary change, which the American people cannot bring themselves to risk even if its blueprint made sense.
Perhaps all this is in the name of sacrifice: that Democrats, by going down in noble flames to Trump yet again, will enable something better – and more electable – to rise from the ashes in 2024, and will have changed the public discourse in the meantime. But for those Democrats who had every reason to expect victory next year, these are pathetically small consolations for the slow-motion political disaster we seem to be witnessing.
*All demographic data from Pew Research Center, “An examination of the 2016 electorate, based on validated voters” (2018).