Gray Lady Splits the Baby

Lest you think I am in any way a well-adjusted individual, last Sunday night—when I could’ve tuned in to the season premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—I found myself spending an hour with “The Weekly” on FX, in which the New York Times editorial board met with seven of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, one by one, as it decided which one to formally endorse. (Two others were interviewed but not included in the show.) In the end, the Times opted for a choose-your-own-adventure approach to field-winnowing, selecting both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar as its preferred nominees, leaving it to readers to figure it out from there.

Given both the import and weirdness of the Times’ verdict, this would seem the ideal moment to reflect on the broader question of how much impact endorsements of office seekers actually have in this third decade of the 21st century: Whether the recommendations of media outlets—newspapers in particular—directly influence people’s votes and, if so, how many.

The premise is sound enough: While ordinary citizens may be too busy or ill-informed to fully understand weighty matters of state and determine which candidates for office are best-equipped to handle them, newspapermen and women devote their lives to exactly that and are presumably experts in their field. Like movie critics, their judgement is theoretically deeper and more informed than yours or mine, and their recommendations—while hardly etched in marble—can serve as a useful exercise in edifying those who wish to be edified.

As to whether this works in practice, the honest answer is that we’ll never know for sure. The act of voting is complicated—the result of a million small considerations congealing into a particular shape at a specific moment in time—and generally not attributable to any one thing. This is especially true for the country’s impressionable swing voters, whose ultimate decision at the ballot box may well be determined by the last TV ad they see or the last tweet they read. To the extent that endorsements play a major—or even ancillary—role in some cases, few voters will explicitly tell a pollster, “I voted for Amy Klobuchar because the New York Times told me to.”

Recalling my own voting history in high-stakes races—which, if you count primaries, include four votes for president, four for governor, five for senator, and two for mayor—I can identify exactly one instance in which a newspaper endorsement actually swayed me from one candidate to the other. It was during the Massachusetts gubernatorial race in 2014, when the Boston Globe—an otherwise left-wing outfit—sided with the Republican, Charlie Baker, over his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, on the grounds that Baker, a former healthcare CEO, had proved himself a competent and effective chief executive, while Coakley’s most notable accomplishment was to have lost a U.S. Senate race—in Massachusetts!—to a conservative Republican who wore denim jackets and drove a pick-up truck.

Liberal that I am, it would’ve been the default move to vote for Coakley anyway; her Senate loss notwithstanding, she had served two perfectly respectable terms as the state’s attorney general. However, once the Globe made its case for Baker, I felt as if I had been given permission—and cover—to cross the aisle in favor of the guy who I suspected was, in fact, the stronger choice of the two. Had the Globe gone with Coakley, I doubt I would’ve had the nerve.

Of course, this was all predicated on the aforementioned idea that editorial boards are these faceless, all-knowing philosopher kings, smarter and more dispassionate than us mere mortals, endowed with the wisdom of the ages and concerned solely with the well-being of the republic.

Deep down, we know this isn’t entirely true—indeed, one of the delights of “The Weekly” is to see the Times editorial writers in all their quirky, bumbling glory—and I would be remiss not to mention that only two of the 100 largest American newspapers endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and look how well that went.  Undoubtedly, the influence of the op-ed section of major publications has been on the wane for quite some time, and the pattern is likely to continue as such.

Nonetheless, for those of us who still read the paper every morning and believe a free press is all that stands between the United States and tyranny, news publications will remain a beacon in the search for truth and justice in the world and a bulwark against the corruptions and obfuscations of public men. If their views on presidential candidates don’t come directly from God and no longer count as the proverbial last word on the matter—if, indeed, they ever did—they should nonetheless be taken seriously and with the deference owed to an institution whose core mission—guaranteed by the First Amendment—is to ensure the survival of liberty and freedom in our society, now more than ever.

In the future, though, it would perhaps be most prudent to endorse only one candidate at a time.

Bernie Again

I haven’t the slightest idea whom I’m gonna vote for in the Democratic presidential primary, which will be held in my home state of Massachusetts on March 3, aka “Super Tuesday.” That gives me 51 days to get my act together, although, truth be told, the longer this process has dragged on, the more undecided I have become.

At various moments over the past year, I have given serious consideration to no fewer than four of the Democratic candidates for the party’s nomination—some for weeks or even months at a time—without fully committing to one over the others, and I expect not to make up my mind for good until the final hours before casting my ballot—as my state entitles me to do as an unenrolled (i.e., independent) voter.

In 2016, life was simple: You were either Team Hillary or Team Bernie. Coke or Pepsi. Door No. 1 or Door No. 2. While our two-party system has repeatedly shown the many limits and aggravations of having a binary choice at election time—and all the days in between—there was a certain comfort and clarity in the ideological starkness between those two very different options four years ago and the worldviews and possible futures they represented.

Today, by contrast, I find myself surveying the still-absurdly-large field of pretenders and reflecting that when it comes to the democratic (and Democratic) electoral process, bigger is not necessarily better. While having a panoply of races, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds represented among our public figures may be an inherently positive development in the evolution of the species, it also imposes an acutely cumbersome burden on the average voter, who frankly has better things to do with his or her time than parse the minute—and often superficial—differences among a gang of largely interchangeable agents of anti-Trumpian liberalism.

Which is all a fancy way of saying that, after all the pomp and circumstance of this campaign—the debates, the advertisements, the journalistic think pieces—maybe I’ll just make it easy on myself and go with Bernie for a second time.

Indeed, I opted for the junior senator from Vermont at this juncture in the previous cycle. Not because I thought he could win—by the time the Bay State’s turn came around, Secretary Clinton’s nomination was more or less a fait accompli—but rather because of the sheer indestructability of his convictions relative to Clinton’s endless hedging, equivocating and triangulating.

The joke about Sanders in 2016 was that, as Joe Scarborough quipped, he’s “been saying the same thing since 1962”; that he is basically a one-trick pony—a latter-day Eugene V. Debs striking out for the rights of the downtrodden, seeking a fairer and more equitable society in which the top 1 percent doesn’t control 99 percent of everything.

Four years hence, as the Democratic Party has drifted ever-farther to the left, Sanders remains more or less exactly where he has always been. The known-est of known quantities. The democratic-socialist-for-life who will sing his gospel of wealth redistribution until the last dog dies.

In this way, there are really two types of left-leaning voters: Those who find Sanders’s ideological rigidity inspiring, and those who find it insufferable. While I have always firmly been a member of the first group, I am not quite what you’d call a “Bernie bro,” nor am I prepared to walk across hot coals or jump off a bridge in order to bring about the so-called Revolution. As a skeptic-bordering-on-cynic, I lack the imagination to assume anything close to Sanders’s plans for fully-subsidized healthcare and education could be implemented in my lifetimenor am I certain that they should beand I find the cult-like arrogance of his minions tiresome and counterproductive.

At the same time, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the philosophy of entering a negotiation demanding everything and settling for half, rather than demanding half and settling for nothing, and there is reason to believe the sheer zeal of Sanders’s economic views would yield at least a modicum of forward progress on the issues about which he cares the most—much as Donald Trump’s zeal on immigration has produced substantive (albeit horrifying) changes along our southern border.

In that vein, there may be no more glowing or succinct characterization of Bernie Sanders as a public official than from the winner of the JFK Library’s “Profiles in Courage” essay contest in 2000, who wrote of Sanders, “His energy, candor, conviction, and ability to bring people together stand against the current of opportunism, moral compromise, and partisanship which runs rampant on the American political scene. He and few others like him have the power to restore principle and leadership in Congress and to win back the faith of a voting public weary and wary of political opportunism.”

That essay writer was Pete Buttigieg, making the 2020 case for Bernie perhaps a bit too convincingly for his own good.

At press time, Sanders is either leading or tied in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. As with his closest competitors, were he to win both of those states, the nomination would become his to lose. Should he become the nominee at the Democratic convention in July—an eventuality that virtually no mainstream media outlet even considered until last week—it will be because a critical mass of the electorate (possibly including me) reached the same conclusion Mayor Pete did two decades ago: If the Democrats are going to lose the next election, they might as well do it honestly, with a nominee who embodies their true values and will fight like hell to defend them.

It’s a nice way to win, too.

Impeachapalooza

Ask the typical conservative what he thinks about the looming, likely impeachment of one President Donald Trump, and he will likely turn the question around by indignantly claiming that liberals have been plotting to impeach Trump “since the day he was sworn in.”

As one such liberal, I can assure you this is incorrect. In fact, we have been plotting to impeach Trump since before he was sworn in.

Not that he hasn’t made it exceedingly easy to do so. The precise meaning of “impeachable offense” may well be in the eye of the beholder—Gerald Ford immortally called it “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history”—but it seems reasonable to conclude that the cumulative behavior of the sitting commander-in-chief, both before and during his tenure, amounts to a veritable buffet of disgracefulness wholly unbecoming of the highest office in the land.

The question isn’t “Has Trump committed an impeachable offense?” Rather, it’s “Which impeachable offense is the most offensive of them all?”

Is it the emoluments, i.e., Trump’s personal profiting from foreign dignitaries lodging at his many luxury hotels? Is it the campaign finance violations surrounding his silencing of Stormy Daniels mere days before the 2016 election? Is it attempting to collude with Russia to swing the election itself and covering up the subsequent investigation of same? Is it repeatedly putting in a good word for (or being silent about) the domestic terrorists who have attempted to murder his political opponents and/or members of the press?

Or—as Nancy Pelosi would argue—is it leaning on the leader of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, tacitly threatening to withhold millions of dollars in military aid if he doesn’t?

As Democrats and Republicans in Congress squabble about the precise nature of the president’s questionable July 25 phone conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—was it extortion, a quid pro quo or a friendly suggestion?—let us remind ourselves that impeachment doesn’t require a specific act of criminality on the president’s part—or, indeed, a specific act of any sort.

As Republicans were quite happy to point out when they attempted to hound Bill Clinton from office in 1998, impeachment can simply be a referendum on a president’s character—that is, on his collective personal flaws as they relate to, and impinge upon, the carrying out of his constitutional duties as commander-in-chief. As no less than Alexander Hamilton wrote in no less than the Federalist Papers, objects of impeachment are “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

That’s a fairly open-ended standard for censure by the legislative branch, and in the face of Donald Trump, the case could scarcely be clearer or more damning. Surely, if Bill Clinton’s single lie about extramarital sex constituted a “violation of some public trust,” it stands to reason that Trump’s 13,000-or-so lies about just about everything—including extramarital sex—constitutes roughly the same thing, with interest.

As a moral issue, impeaching Trump is a question that answers itself. The real quandary—the practical one—is whether actually following through on the impeachment process will make any damn difference in the long run.

When it comes to this president—and this presidency—the closest we have to a statistical constant is the fact that virtually every scandal of Trump’s own making tends to fizzle out within 72 hours. Through the sheer volume of Trump’s offenses against common decency and the body politic, no single idiocy—however appalling—retains its outrageousness from one end of the week to the other before the next abomination takes its place. There have been exceptions to this rule, to be sure—Charlottesville and locking kids in cages chief among them—but they are, in fact, exceptional.

As such, are we so sure that impeachment, should it come, won’t be more than yet another ephemeral three-day story? That formally indicting Trump for various high crimes and misdemeanors, however legitimate, won’t be supplanted by some new, unrelated ridiculousness shortly after the official vote is tallied?

Political pundits have been breathlessly wagering about whether Trump’s impeachment would redound to the benefit of the left or the right come Election Day 2020. However, both conclusions assume that, 385 days from now, the electorate will even remember that impeachment was ever a thing.

Color me skeptical that they will—that impeachment may yet prove a mere minor episode in the reality TV show from hell that is America since November 8, 2016. That, like the two-year Mueller investigation that preceded it, it will evaporate like mist from the nation’s collective consciousness almost immediately after reaching its denouement.

The truth is that we may never know for sure what impact impeachment will have on the next election—we’re still arguing about the causes of the last one, with no consensus in sight—and this fact ought to be liberating for the Democratic Party. After all, so long as the consequences of moving forward with this inquiry remain indeterminate, there is all the more incentive to do the right thing for its own sake. “Tis not in mortals to command success,” intoned a character in Cato, George Washington’s favorite play. “[B]ut we’ll do more […] we’ll deserve it.”

Donald Trump should be impeached because he has abused the powers of his office above and beyond what should be tolerated by either Congress or the public. If he is to be re-elected in 2020, it might as well be with his full record of criminality on display for the electorate to either endorse or reject. In such a scenario, no voter could decently claim to have filled out his or her ballot under false pretenses. Everyone’s cards would be on the table, with no stone left unturned.

There are worse ways to run a presidential campaign.

It’s the Court, Stupid

There was a moment last week—thankfully, it was only a moment—when American liberals’ hearts stopped and it felt like the world was about to end.

It came when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had recently undergone radiation treatment for a tumor in her pancreas—the latest in a long line of cancer scares for Ginsburg going back several decades. (She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009.)

While this most recent brush with mortality apparently ended well—“The tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body,” the court said—it served as a reminder—which we most certainly needed—that, at 86, the Notorious RBG will not be on the Supreme Court forever; that she is as susceptible to the ravages of age as the rest of us; and that her long and storied history of cheating death will one day come to an end.

Sooner or later, one way or another, Justice Ginsburg will be forced to relinquish her seat on the Supreme Court, enabling the then-president to nominate a successor—someone who, in all likelihood, will serve for the next 30 or 40 years.

As four out of five actuaries will tell you, that president will be Donald Trump.

Consider: Beyond Ginsburg’s own series of health calamities, only three Supreme Court justices in history have lived longer while on the bench than Ginsburg already has. Should Trump be defeated in 2020, Ginsburg would be two months shy of 88 when the new president is sworn in, at which point she could safely retire without the court’s center of gravity swinging irreparably to the right.

But if Trump is re-elected and serves until January 20, 2025? Well, what’s 88 plus four?

Did I mention that Stephen Breyer, the other long-serving liberal on the court, is just five years younger than Ginsburg and possibly less indestructible than she is?

I bring all of this up for one exceedingly simple reason: While the 2020 election may come to signify any number of things—about America, about democracy, about the future of Western civilization writ large—it will most assuredly determine the composition of the Supreme Court for a generation or more, and there is no more compelling reason for left-leaning voters to support the eventual Democratic nominee than that.

Long story short: The re-election of Trump all but guarantees a 7-2 conservative majority on the nation’s highest court. Just for starters, that means the disintegration of Roe v. Wade; the end of Obamacare as we know it; the solidification of the so-called “unitary executive theory,” whereby the president can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants for any reason. It means further erosion of the Voting Rights Act and firmer entrenchment of unchecked voter suppression. It means LGBTQ equality is no longer guaranteed but corporate personhood is. It means guns for all and unions for none.

It’s the great flaw of the Democratic Party (among many others) that its leaders can’t turn these dire, self-evident truths into a foundational election year issue—that they can’t seem to impart the monumental importance of the judicial branch in Americans’ day-to-day lives, and the singular role the president plays in shaping the composition thereof.

You know who did understand this dynamic and communicated it repeatedly, and to great effect, in 2016? Donald Effing Trump.

For all his blabbering, unprincipled incoherence on the campaign trail, candidate Trump made it crystal clear at every available opportunity—particularly when his back was against the wall and it looked like his entire candidacy was going up in smoke—that a vote for him was a vote for a right-wing judiciary from one end of the federal government to the other. That if Republicans entrusted him with control of the executive branch, he would bequeath them an unimpeachably conservative roster of judges—all with lifetime appointments—in return.

It was a brazen quid pro quo of the first order, and boy oh boy, did he deliver.

Ask a certain breed of conservative—the sort who found Trump by turns offensive, odious and embarrassing—why he held his nose and voted for him anyway, and he’ll simply rattle off two names: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

That’s to say nothing of the president’s myriad appointments to the all-important circuit courts, filling vacancies that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cynically—and, in retrospect, brilliantly—kept open while Barack Obama was in office.

This is neither to excuse nor justify the conscious enabling of an authoritarian, racist windbag by millions of voters who supposedly knew better.

Rather, this is to remind Democratic presidential candidates and their advocates that scaring their own voters about the future of the Supreme Court is an entirely valid and potentially fruitful strategy, and if self-preservation is an instinct they possess—a debatable question, at best—they could do a lot worse than to order a few million yard signs reading, “Democrats 2020:  Because RBG Isn’t Getting Any Younger.

You Have No Choice

Two telling moments from the political dog days of summer.

First, from President Donald Trump at his most recent Triumph of the Will-style rally, in Manchester, New Hampshire: “If, for some reason, I were not to have won the [2016] election, these markets would have crashed. That will happen even more so in 2020. You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes. Whether you love me or hate me, you gotta vote for me.”

Second, from former Second Lady Jill Biden, at a bookstore in nearby Nashua, speaking on behalf of her husband, Joe: “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care, than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘OK, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

Here we have two very different people speaking in two very different tones to two very different audiences, yet somehow the message is exactly the same—namely, the message conveyed on the famous 1973 cover of National Lampoon: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

That, in so many words, is where we stand with our two likely presidential nominees in 2020: Vote for me, or else. Nice country you have here; it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Our votes are not being sought. They are being extorted. Democracy at the point of a gun.

To be fair, Jill Biden is not her husband; nor, in any case, could her comment reasonably be taken as a direct threat to those who might take their electoral business elsewhere. (Trump, as ever, is another story.) No doubt she would characterize her “swallow a little bit” plea merely as an appeal to strategic pragmatism, seeing the big picture, etc. Indeed, if anything, her tacit acknowledgment that the former vice president isn’t anybody’s idea of a perfect candidate betrays a level of modesty and class that too few candidates (and/or their spouses) possess—not least in the crucible of a campaign.

All the same, there is something profoundly dispiriting about the wife and leading spokesperson for a major presidential contender resorting to lesser-of-two-evils talk a full 11 months before the party’s nominating convention. How sad—how pathetic—that the woman who knows Joe Biden’s strengths and charms more deeply than anyone alive finds it necessary to pitch her husband for the highest office in the land like he’s a used car with a better-than-decent chance of making it over the state line without losing all four tires.

Is it really too much to ask that our actions in the voting booth be motivated by something other than fear, dread or a sense of grudging, soul-crushing obligation? Must we be told that the primary—if not sole—reason to fill out a ballot a particular way is to head off an extinction-level event (e.g., four more years of Trump)? That if we don’t fall in line behind The One True King, everything we hold dear in this world will be flushed down the toilet?

Not to be overly sentimental, but what ever happened to the happy warrior? The guy who enters the arena with such joy—such clarity of moral and civic purpose—that he earns not only the public’s vote but also its admiration and respect?

Will there be anyone in 2020 who campaigns on the audacity of hope?

At a fundraiser in the closing days of 2016, Hillary Clinton reportedly quipped, “I’m the only thing standing between you and the abyss,” unwittingly channeling the resignation so much of the American left felt about voting for such a nauseatingly flawed candidate. On the right, meanwhile, were the likes of Michael Anton, whose inflammatory but widely-read essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” argued more or less the same thing from the opposite direction—namely, that Trump was the bulwark and Clinton was the abyss.

Across the political spectrum, it became both a joke and an article of faith that no one was truly happy with their options on November 8, and that a vote for Candidate X was meant primarily—if not exclusively—as a vote against Candidate Y.

But did it really need to be so?

Perhaps my memory is marred by unwarranted nostalgia, but I do not recall checking the box for Barack Obama in 2008 on the grounds that John McCain presented an existential threat to democracy or world peace (his running mate notwithstanding). Nor did I feel as such about Mitt Romney four years later, weird and obnoxious though he was.

In fact, I voted for Obama because I liked him a very great deal—his character, his ideas, his unique place in U.S. history—and affirmatively wanted him as both the chief executive and figurehead of the great nation I call home, and I am quite satisfied with what I ultimately got.

There is no compelling reason why every presidential election shouldn’t follow this same rubric, whereby candidates for high office present themselves as the means to a bright future irrespective of the alternative, whose victory would represent something more than the mere dodging of a painful historical bullet.

In 2016, with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump won by campaigning on yesterday.  With any luck at all, the winner in 2020 will be whoever campaigns on tomorrow.

Biden His Time

Here’s a political question for us all:  Was the death of Beau Biden in May 2015 the most consequential event of the 2016 election?

Prior to being diagnosed with the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him, Beau Biden was a rising talent in the Democratic Party, serving as Delaware’s attorney general and generally assumed to be destined for higher office of one sort or another.

He was also the son of Joe Biden, then the sitting vice president and presumptive leading contender for the Oval Office in 2016.  By all accounts, the elder Biden was fully intent on a third run for president—following failed attempts in 1988 and 2008—and it was entirely due to the timing of his son’s illness and death that he decided to take a pass and effectively cede the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton.  And we know how well that went.

It’s the great political “What if?” of our time:  Would the 2016 election have ended differently had Joe Biden been in the mix?

With regards to the Democratic primaries, God only knows.  Maybe Hillary would’ve cleaned Biden’s clock—as both she and Barack Obama did in 2008.  Maybe he would’ve self-imploded through some embarrassing self-own, as he did in 1988 when it was found that he had plagiarized several of his campaign speeches.  Maybe he and Hillary would’ve fought to a protracted, bitter stalemate, allowing a third, outsider candidate (*cough* Bernie *cough*) to sneak past both of them.

But if Biden had somehow bested all his Democratic counterparts and emerged as the party’s nominee, could he have defeated Trump on November 8?

Answer:  Obviously yes.

Of course Biden could’ve defeated Trump in 2016.  Of course he could’ve flipped 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—i.e., the three states that wound up swinging the whole damn election.  Of course he could’ve appealed to a not-insignificant chunk of white, semi-deplorable working-class folk who otherwise find Democrats acutely irritating and Hillary positively intolerable.

Yes, in an alternate universe, Joe Biden could’ve been sworn in as the 45th president on January 20, 2017.

I say “could’ve,” not “would’ve,” since any counterfactual involves an infinite number of variables we can’t even begin to imagine.  What’s more, given the historically low occurrence of one political party winning three presidential elections in a row, it’s hardly inconceivable that Trump could’ve defeated any number of Democratic opponents in that strange moment of populist rage—not least the one most closely associated with the outgoing administration.

That said, hindsight strongly suggests Biden would’ve navigated the 2016 campaign more adroitly than Clinton did—if only from a lack of questionable e-mails or a sexual predator spouse—and may well have made the biggest mistake of his life in choosing not to take the plunge when he had the chance.

The relevant follow-up, then, is whether Biden’s apparently imminent entry into the 2020 primaries—for real this time!—will follow through on the untested promise of 2016 and serve as the de facto Obama restoration half the country has craved for the last two-plus years.  Or, instead, whether Biden’s moment really has come and gone, and the best he could do would be to sail off into retirement as a beloved (albeit slightly pervy) elder statesman.

In other words:  Having become as respected and endearing as almost any public figure in America today, why would Biden risk becoming a loser and a laughingstock yet again for the sake of one last roll in the hay?

The short answer is that Biden just really, really wants to be president.  Always has, apparently always will.  How badly, you ask?  Well, badly enough to address multiple recent allegations of unwanted physical contact by insisting that he regrets none of it and isn’t sorry about a damn thing.

And what about it?  On the subject of #MeToo-era sensitivity about men behaving predatorily, let’s not kid ourselves:  In a society where “Grab ‘em by the pussy” yielded support of 53 percent of white women, who’s to say “I enjoy smelling women’s hair but I’m also pro-choice” isn’t a winning route to 270 electoral votes?

The only certainty about the 2020 election is that no one has any idea how it will shake out—particularly those who claim they do.  Biden could defeat Trump in the sense that anyone could defeat Trump, although the converse is equally true.  Is he the most “electable” of all the Democrats in the field?  With 301 days until the first primary votes are cast, how much are you willing to wager that the word “electable” holds any meaning whatsoever?

I’ll leave you with this possibly-interesting piece of trivia:  The last non-incumbent former vice president to be elected commander-in-chief in his own right was Richard Nixon in 1968.  Care to guess how many times it happened before that?

Answer:  Zero.

The Bernie Conundrum

The Massachusetts Democratic primary is scheduled for March 3, 2020—exactly one year from Sunday—and, oddly enough, I haven’t yet decided for whom I will vote.  With a dozen-odd officially-declared candidates to choose from—and God knows how many more waiting in the wings—I see no particular rush in picking one potential future president over another.  Apart from anything else, I try always to bear in mind Christopher Hitchens’s observation that politicians tend to work a little harder for your vote if you haven’t given it away in advance.

That said, I can’t help noting that the Democratic candidate for whom I voted in the 2016 primary is also a candidate this year.

The hopeful in question is of course one Bernie Sanders, the cranky junior senator from Vermont who was into Democratic socialism before it was cool and whose supposedly loony-toon advocacy for universal healthcare has since become a core tenet of Democratic Party orthodoxy in one form or another.

In 2016, I supported Sanders over Hillary Clinton on the strength of his integrity and liberal bona fides—as Joe Scarborough quipped at the time, “He’s been saying the same thing since 1962”—and I would be prepared to support him over any number of other contenders in 2020 for the exact same reasons.

And yet…

You see, my feelings about Bernie Sanders have grown rather complicated as of late—not by Sanders himself, per se, as by his most ravenous defenders and by what he represents in the American body politic.

Since 2016, my (somewhat cheeky) bumper sticker shorthand for Sanders has been, “Trump, Minus the Racism.”  For all the obvious differences between the two men—to quote Matt Taibbi, “Sanders worries about the poor, while Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat”—there were (and still are) certain ways in which Sanders’s and Trump’s views of the world overlap.  Then and now, both reject the so-called wisdom of the Washington, D.C., establishment of both parties.  Both understand the corrosive, something-is-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark role of big money in our political system.  Both are scornful of America’s overly-expansive presence on the world stage.  Both are happy-warrior populists who say exactly what’s on their mind without any filter between their brain and their mouth.

And both inspire a measure of loyalty from a core group of supporters that can only be described as cult-like.  On one side is the Basket of Deplorables.  On the other are the Bernie Bros.

For both groups, the American Dream has effectively become unreachable for all but the most privileged among us—thanks largely to several decades of “rigged” policies by the nation’s elites—and nothing less than a wholesale blowing up of the entire system is sufficient to restore America to its former glory.

The problem with framing our country’s class and cultural divide in quasi-apocalyptic terms—appealing as it sounds at first blush—is that it naturally leads one in search of a savior—someone who presumes to walk on water and spin straw into gold.  And once such a messianic figure is found, it becomes increasingly second nature to view him as infallible—and, more alarming still, irreplaceable.

With Trump and Sanders both, that is precisely what has occurred.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump made a wretched spectacle of himself by describing the United States as a raging dumpster fire and proclaiming, “I alone can fix it.”  While Sanders himself has not quite sunk to such depths of solipsism and delusions of grandeur, his fans have gladly taken up the cause on his behalf, crying all over social media, “Bernie is our only hope!”—implying, with more than a hint of a threat, that if Democratic primary voters opt for one of Sanders’s gazillion intra-party competitors instead of him in 2020, they will shop around for an alternative, Jill Stein-like figure to support in the general election.  As far as they’re concerned, if Bernie can’t have this country, we might as well let it burn.

Needless to say, not all Sanders supporters are obstinate ideological absolutists.  After all, I’m a Sanders supporter and I’m not absolutist about much of anything beyond the correct way to eat a slice of pizza (handheld, folded in half, obviously).

What worries me, however, is that the amplifying—and, dare I say, toxic—effects of the interwebs will cause Sanders to be singularly associated with a gang of humorless, rabid, mansplaining lemmings, thereby turning off millions of otherwise “gettable” voters on both sides of the national divide, greatly narrowing his path to victory and, should victory come, making his operation look less like an organic grassroots political movement and more like the Church of Scientology—a place where unquestioned fealty to doctrine is required at all times and the perfect is forever and always made the enemy of the good.

I guess what I most desire for the 2020 election and our next president are skepticism, nuance and a wee touch of humility every now and again.  We’ve now lived more than two years under a commander-in-chief who seems to truly believe he has never been wrong about anything—or, at the very least, will never admit as much publicly—and who views dissent of any sort as a threat and a nuisance rather than an opportunity for personal and political growth.

Are we sure Bernie Sanders—the man whose views haven’t changed in half a century—is the ideal corrective to this state of affairs?  Is it really enough to replace one stubborn old mule with another simply because the second is smarter, kinder and more dignified than the first?

I don’t have the answer to that question today.  Ask me again in a year.