Then There Were Two

I don’t know which candidate is the most electable. I don’t know which one would make the better president. I don’t know which one I like more.

Like Cosmo in “Moonstruck,” I don’t know where I’ve been, and I don’t know where I’m going.

Having spent my Super Tuesday voting for Elizabeth Warren—an act of such earthshattering import that she dropped out 36 hours later—I am now left with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders as the only remaining contenders for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020. And much to my surprise, I find myself in an uncomfortable state of uncertainty about which of those candidates to root for.

I’ve happily voted for both men before: Biden for vice president in 2008 and 2012, and Sanders in the presidential primary in 2016. While I couldn’t quite bring myself to fill in the oval for either of them last week—not Sanders because of his repulsive cult following, not Biden because of his evident cognitive decline—I nonetheless retain great affection for both and, given the alternative, would be entirely comfortable with either as the next leader of the free world.

Accordingly, like the New York Times editorial board earlier in the year, faced with a stark ideological divide between two equally-pitched factions within the Democratic Party, I have decided to come down firmly on both sides. In the battle of ideas between these two feisty septuagenarians and their most rabid fellow travelers, I will stay neutral between now and the convention in July.

Partly, this is out of sheer exhaustion with the whole process. After more than a year of comparison shopping my way through the dozens of would-be challengers to Donald Trump, I have long resigned myself to the fact that the party’s eventual nominee will be a highly imperfect vessel for the values of the American left (such as they are) and that defeating Trump in November will be a monumentally difficult task regardless of who that nominee is.

To my thinking, any Democratic voter who believes his or her preferred candidate is a sure bet in November is necessarily living in a fantasy world, which makes it all the more striking that the respective cores of the Biden and Sanders campaigns have so fully convinced themselves of their own infallibility. Indeed, if there is one thing about which partisans of both would-be standard-bearers agree (albeit with varying intensity), it’s that their own guy is the republic’s One True Savior, while their counterpart is the second coming of George McGovern, fated not just to lose, but to lose in crushing, spectacular fashion.

On the night of November 3, one of those assertions will be proved correct, while the other will remain a mystery forever. Until then, this whole “electability” argument will function as the parlor game that it has always been—unknown and unknowable until it’s too late.

As for the real argument in this contest—the one that asks, “How far to the left is the Democratic Party prepared to go?”—well, that exhausts me, too. While there is simply no way around the fact that Biden and Sanders represent two distinct visions of liberalism and the role of government in our highly unequal and disjointed society, I am as wary as ever that the upcoming three-month intraparty war to resolve that question will ultimately drive a portion of Sanders loyalists into the arms of Donald Trump—or some third party candidate-to-be-named-later—believing, as many of them already do, that in the grand scheme of things, Biden is a fate worse than Trump.

My own view is that Sanders is correct in believing that the wealthiest nation on Earth should be providing more services to (and collecting higher taxes from) its citizens than it currently does, but that Biden—whose own philosophy is similar, if watered-down—better understands how to wield the levers of power to bring that kind of bright, equitable future about.

While it would be nice for Sanders to possess more executive experience and for Biden to harbor more socialistic views, you can’t have everything you want all of the time. Someday Democratic Party voters will understand that. Until they do, they will continue to tear themselves apart, ensuring a photo-finish result on Election Night 2020.

But not to worry: Only the fate of the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court and all of Western civilization hangs in the balance.

The High Ceiling

Can a woman be elected president in 2020?

Hell, a woman can’t even be named best director at the Oscars in 2020.

The nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced on Monday morning, and arguably the most egregious blind spot on this year’s roster (there were many) was the omission of Greta Gerwig, the maestro behind the dazzling new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which was released on Christmas Day to sold-out audiences and universal acclaim—including from Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, who wrote that Gerwig’s sophomore project “may just be the best film yet made by an American woman.”

And yet somehow the Academy couldn’t find room for Gerwig among its five honorees for direction, despite nominating “Little Women” for best picture and five other categories, including Gerwig for adapted screenplay.

It makes one wonder: If the director of a near-flawless treatment of one of America’s most beloved novels can’t get nominated for best director, what woman can?

Indeed, in the entire history of the Oscars, only five female directors have ever pulled off such a feat: Lina Wertmüller in 1977, Jane Campion in 1994, Sofia Coppola in 2004, Kathryn Bigelow in 2010, and Gerwig in 2018, for Lady Bird. Notably, the only victor in that group, Bigelow, won for a gritty, testosterone-driven war film, “The Hurt Locker,” that contained virtually no women at all.

The message here is clear enough: Women are rewarded for excellence, but only when playing by men’s rules in a man’s arena. This has been the case more or less since time immemorial, and it will continue to be wherever men are calling the shots, which the Academy—68 percent of which is male—still most assuredly does.

I offer this all-too-obvious assessment as a prelude to the even larger gender controversy of the week: Elizabeth Warren’s claim that Bernie Sanders expressed doubts in a one-on-one meeting in 2018 that any woman could defeat Donald Trump in the election on November 3.

Sanders has received a fair amount of grief for this alleged assertion (which he strenuously denies having made), particularly during Tuesday’s Democratic debate, when a moderator baldly took Warren’s side in the dispute. What has gotten lost in the kerfuffle—at least among those arguing the loudest—is the apparently less-than-self-evident fact that, if Warren’s account of their meeting is accurate, Sanders’s only substantive point was that a plurality of Americans are too sexist to vote for a woman for commander-in-chief—an argument many women have been making for decades, often for good reason. If Sanders is a monster for agreeing with this sentiment, what does that say about the sentiment?

In truth, we can never know for sure whether sexism—specifically, bias against female leaders—is the primary reason a woman has not yet become commander-in-chief, nor whether such a bias will prevent the likes of Warren or Amy Klobuchar from being elected this time around. The matrix of considerations that factor into any individual voter’s thinking in the ballot box is often too intricate to be reduced to any one thing, nor do out-and-out misogynists tend to volunteer their prejudices to a pollster or anyone else (outside of a locker room, that is).

That said, social science, common sense and the entirety of world history would very strongly suggest that implicit sexism in the public square is still very much a thing and will continue to dog every female candidate for high office from now until the end of time. To deny this is to deny a reality that is staring us directly in the face.

This doesn’t mean the Democratic Party shouldn’t nominate a woman for president in 2020, or in any other year. (Personally, I’d be thrilled not to vote for a man in a general election ever again.) It just means that doing so invites complications that a male nominee has the luxury not to worry about—namely, the latent (if not blatant) perception among millions of Americans that a woman is simply not suited to command the largest military on the face of the Earth, however brilliant or savvy she might be.

It’s not fair and it’s not rational, and it certainly shouldn’t be passively accepted without a fightas both Warren and Klobuchar seem to understand. But it’s most assuredly a real phenomenon in this most patriarchal of nations, and blaming Bernie Sanders for pointing it out—if that is, indeed, what he did—is a profoundly silly and counterproductive use of Democratic voters’ time.

If the best revenge is to live a good life, then the best way to counter endemic sexism in the American body politic is to be the strongest presidential candidate one can possibly be. Women have always been held to an impossible standard in any field traditionally dominated by men—politics chief among them—and until human nature evolves beyond the lizard brain mentality that presumes men are meant to lead while women are meant to follow, female leaders-to-be have little choice but to continue proving themselves worthy.  It’s only a matter of time before the message finally breaks through.  Until it does, we’ll always have “Little Women.”

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.

Sense and Sensibility

It is perhaps a sign of the increasing exhaustion of the Democratic primary race that sometime last week—possibly after several pints—I ruminated on the so-called first tier of presidential contenders and thought, “Maybe I’ll just vote for Michael Bennet instead.”

I’m not being cute or facetious—not entirely, at least. Fully one year into the 2020 campaign—and all the interviews, debates and magazine profiles that have followed—I feel like I’ve learned pretty much all there will ever be to know about the likes of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg (not to mention the dear departed Kamala Harris), and wouldn’t be terribly upset if they spontaneously disappeared into a black hole, never to be seen or heard from again.

It’s not a question of dislike, for I admire every member of this elite quartet and would be perfectly happy voting for any of them on November 3, 2020. Rather, it’s a simple matter of overexposure and, with it, the nagging suspicion that the whole premise of which candidates are “serious” and which aren’t is a largely arbitrary, media-driven phenomenon that values personality and pizazz a bit too much and wisdom and prudence not nearly enough.

At this late date, there are 15 people still actively running for the Democratic Party nomination. How did it come to be that Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg—to the exclusion of all the others—are worth paying attention to? Sure, they are the ones faring best in the polls at the moment, but when you interrogate the numbers a bit more, you find that a large proportion of the electorate—three-quarters, according to one study—is less than fully committed to one candidate over another and is prepared to switch loyalties between now and the actual voting period, which begins in Iowa on February 3 and ends in Washington, D.C., on June 16.  (The Democratic Convention runs July 13-16 in Milwaukee.)

The bottom line is that this primary contest is as fluid and unpredictable as any in the modern era. To which I must ask: Why not Michael Bennet?

To be sure, one can be forgiven for still not knowing who the hell Michael Bennet is. After all, he has appeared in only two of the six Democratic debates so far, during which his only newsworthy moment—a plea for education reform—drew less-than-flattering comparisons to a character from “South Park.” Beyond that, his candidacy has been virtually invisible to the average voter, despite occasional appearances on “The Daily Show” and similar outlets, none of which have nudged his poll numbers much beyond 1 percent. Indeed, I saw Bennet interviewed at the Boston Public Library for the local NPR station in August—I was sitting about 30 feet from the microphone—and he barely registered with me then.

More recently, however, I have taken it upon myself to give Bennet a fairer hearing, and I must confess that the more I see, the more I like.

More than anything, it is Bennet’s sheer even-temperedness that recommends him as the next leader of what’s left of the free world. Having served as a senator from Colorado since 2009, he embodies an area of the country that is both literally and ideologically in the center—the Centennial State has voted for Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal measure over the last several decades—and he wears the orientation well. Holding political positions that are at once “moderate” and well within the mainstream of his party—for instance, he is anti-“Medicare for all” but pro-“public option”—he is well-positioned to provide the Democratic base most of what it wants while not scaring off the nine million people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

The primary reason for this is character—the sense that when he says something, he really means it and is prepared to risk considerable political capital to stay true to his core convictions.

Prior to his tenure in the Senate, Bennet served four years as superintendent of the Denver Public Schools—a job he says will forever be the highlight of his professional life—and is never more impassioned than on the subject of America’s schools. (He was a runner-up to be President Obama’s secretary of education.) When he insists—as he often does—that he is more concerned with implementing free preschool than free college, you know instinctively that he is not merely making an appeal to the country’s all-powerful teachers unions. That, in fact, he speaks from hard-won personal experience and, given the chance, will almost certainly go to the mat for the nation’s emerging generation with all the firepower he can muster.

To be sure, Bennet is hardly the only presidential wannabe who wears his values on his sleeve. What distinguishes him from his competitors is that rarest and most improbable trait of aspirants to high office: Modesty.

Unlike true-blue liberal revolutionaries like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—whose stump speeches contain the fire and brimstone of prophets—Bennet does not strut around with the certainty of a man who believes he has figured everything out and is nothing less than God’s gift to America. Nor does he feel compelled to overemphasize—even fetishize—his relative ideological restraint as inherently virtuous, à la Amy Klobuchar, Buttigieg or Biden.

In his less-than-enviable position far off-stage from the main event, Bennet seems to have no strategy—no angle, no gimmick—beyond simply being his unadorned self, nor any illusions about his long, long odds of success in his current endeavor. In interviews, he recounts an early conversation with one of his daughters, who encouraged him to run for president, saying, “If you tell the truth and lose, no one can fault you for it.” To which Bennet replied, “There is no other reason for me to run, and I don’t think there’s any other way for me to win.”

There’s a touch of Harry Truman in that formulation, reminiscent of the moment in 1948 when, upon famously being told to “Give ‘em hell,” Truman gamely retorted, “I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” Admittedly, Bennet may be too mild-mannered even to go that far—if anything, he would be at home as the protagonist of a Frank Capra movie circa 1939—but the humble, plainspoken idealism is of much the same vintage and sensibility.

Bennet’s problem, of course, is that it’s not 1939 or 1948. In 2020, you cannot expect to be elected president simply by being a decent, honorable person with relevant experience and the occasional flare of righteous tenacity. Barring a series of dramatic events far beyond the imagination of mere mortals, Michael Bennet will not get anywhere close to being the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in 2020. And that, in its own small way, is the great political tragedy of our times.

Making the Case

“You think a lot about people you encounter, and there are a number of them in our community who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump and Mike Pence and me.  And one thing you realize […] is that it means that voters are maybe not as neatly ideological as a lot of the commentary assumes.”

So said Pete Buttigieg—the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and one of the two-dozen Democrats running for president in 2020—making arguably the most succinct possible case for electing a so-called “moderate” as the party’s standard-bearer against Donald Trump in the election next November.

Needless to say (but why not?), the question of what kind of Democrat ought to represent America’s loyal opposition in 2019 and beyond is the singular point of contention that primary voters will—and should—be debating over the next year and change.  Broadly-speaking, the eventual nominee could come from three possible spots on the ideological spectrum—the center, the left, or the far left—and a great deal depends on whether the Democrats’ perception of the country’s overall political bent matches the reality thereof.

Before we go any further, allow me to disclose loudly and clearly that, barring highly-unforeseen circumstances, I will be voting for the Democratic nominee on November 3, 2020, whoever he or she happens to be.  With Trump as the incumbent, I would happily and unreservedly support any of the possible alternatives without a shadow of a second thought.  Elections are about choices, and lesser-of-two-evils is the name of the game.

One presumes, of course, that a certain percentage of the electorate—somewhere between 40 and 45 percent, say—is on precisely the same wavelength as I am, and can be counted upon to reflexively line up behind the Democratic nominee, come hell or high water—a near-perfect reflection, ironically enough, of the #MAGA rubes who will stick with the president even if/when he murders somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight.

In truth, when you add up every voter who, for all intents and purposes, has already made up his or her mind—i.e., will definitely vote for Trump or will definitely vote for his main challenger—you would be lucky to have more than 10 percent of the electorate leftover.

And yet, as ever, that 10 percent (or whatever) is precisely where the whole damn thing will be decided.  Indeed, while it’s true that every presidential election in our lifetimes has come down to the comparatively miniscule slice of the public known as “swing voters,” the singularly polarizing nature of the Trump era has shrunk America’s protean middle to little more than a sliver, thereby increasing the power and influence of every member therein, for better and for worse.

All of which is to affirm Pete Buttigieg’s implicit argument about how to win the 2020 election:  By making yourself appealing to the widest cross-section of the public as possible.  That begins with assuming that every genuinely undecided voter is persuadable, and acting accordingly.

Practically, this would certainly include venturing into enemy territory—Fox News—to make the case for why you’d be a leader for all Americans, not just those who watch MSNBC.  (Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have smartly done this already, while Elizabeth Warren has foolishly, and loudly, refused.)  As well, it would require not smearing half the electorate as a bunch of freeloaders (á la Mitt Romney) or a “basket of deplorables” (á la Hillary Clinton).

In truth, it would entail little more than taking the American people seriously and treating them, more or less, like adults.

When Buttigieg reminds us about a certain, non-trivial chunk of our fellow citizens who voted for Obama in 2012 only to switch to Trump in 2016—and who, presumably, could swing back in the future—we are forced to reckon with the possibility that these folks’ political loyalties are a function of something other than racial resentment or any sort of coherent philosophy about the role of government in a free society.

Maybe, unlike us, they don’t spend 12 hours a day watching the news break on basic cable and Twitter, absorbing every last detail about life inside the beltway.  Maybe they lead busy, apolitical lives and haven’t given much thought lately to Robert Mueller or Roe v. Wade.

Maybe their tastes in presidents are more instinctual and elemental than weighing one set of policy proposals against another.  Maybe they voted for Obama because he promised them better healthcare, and for Trump because he promised them…better healthcare.

At the risk of reductionism and oversimplicity, maybe the secret to winning an election is vowing to give people what they want and not calling them idiots more often than is strictly necessary.

Would this necessitate misrepresenting, watering down or otherwise compromising your core moral and political values?  Only if you believe those values aren’t worth defending to a possibly skeptical audience.  And if that’s the case, why in holy hell should anyone vote for you in the first place?

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.