vision 2020

How Centrist Democrats Botched the 2020 Primary

Moderate Democrats are struggling to accept that their best option is to go all in on Biden. Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

A specter is haunting “pro-business Democrats” — the specter of change they can’t believe in.

With just over three months until Iowa gets caucusing, Elizabeth Warren is their party’s front-runner. She’s running neck and neck with Joe Biden in the polls — and Biden’s campaign is living hand-to-mouth. The former “senator from MBNA” is losing to a democratic socialist at the fundraising game. And time seems to be depleting Biden’s (always limited) verbal skills even faster than it’s draining his campaign coffers. Meanwhile, the most viable alternative for “Leave Billionaires Alone” Democrats seems to be a college-town mayor with fewer black supporters than Donald Trump. As of this writing, betting markets now put the odds of blue America nominating either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in 2020 at over 50 percent.

Davos Democrats are nonplussed. Each night, consultants of a certain age toss and turn through dreams of George McGovern. Now, many are succumbing to magical thinking. As the New York Times reports:

When a half-dozen Democratic donors gathered at the Whitby Hotel in Manhattan last week, the dinner began with a discussion of which presidential candidates the contributors liked. But as conversations among influential Democrats often go these days, the meeting quickly evolved into a discussion of who was not in the race — but could be lured in.

Would Hillary Clinton get in, the contributors wondered, and how about Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor? One person even mused whether Michelle Obama would consider a late entry, according to two people who attended the event, which was hosted by the progressive group American Bridge.

Bloomberg is reportedly mulling a run, but could never win. Michelle Obama could win, but would never run. Hillary Clinton is almost certainly not delusional enough to throw her hat in the ring. And none of the other names floated by the Whitby diners — Deval Patrick, Eric Holder, John Kerry, and Sherrod Brown — have any obvious advantage over the standard-issue Dems already in the race. If Kamala Harris and Cory Booker aren’t connecting, why would a slapdash Patrick or Holder campaign hit the mark? And what does Brown offer that Klobuchar doesn’t (beyond the opportunity to squander a precious Senate vote)?

The idea that the primary electorate would eagerly support a garden-variety moderate Democrat (who boasts no special connection to Barack Obama) if only they had more than a dozen such candidates to choose from, is manifestly absurd. But the Whitby crowd’s longing for some kind of 2020 “do over” is entirely understandable.

Centrist Democrats entered this cycle with a fairly strong hand. Polls consistently found a majority of Democratic voters saying they preferred a maximally electable nominee over an ideologically ideal one. What’s more, in some surveys, a plurality of the primary electorate evinced a preference for a return to Obamaism over big structural change. To be sure, if progressives consolidated their votes behind a single standard-bearer — one with at least a modicum of appeal to African-Americans in the South — they could still pose a real threat. But the looming left-on-left battle between two light-skinned New Englanders seemed to nullify that risk. Everything was coming up incrementalism.

So, how did center-left Democrats end up in a position so desperate, the concept of “John Kerry 2020” strikes them as cause for consideration instead of laughter?

There are probably an infinite number of (partially) correct answers to that question. But if I had to limit myself to three:

1. Kamala Harris doesn’t have “it.” The California senator may be too liberal for some corporate donors, but she certainly doesn’t unnerve the party’s Wall Street wing the way Warren and Sanders do. And Harris began the 2020 race with a significant amount of Establishment buy-in. For a brief period after her campaign launch, she polled near the top of the pack. But the spotlight exposed Harris’s relative inexperience on the national stage. Her desire to have it both ways on Medicare for All put her in the worst of both worlds — boasting a health-care plan too radical for centrists’ taste, and too craven for the progressive faithful. Her attack on Biden’s busing record earned short-term accolades, but no durable gains with African-American voters. And then Warren began eating into her share of the #Resistance vote (for lack of a better term). Harris’s campaign isn’t quite dead — she’s still only a hair behind Mayor Pete in national polls. But her failure to launch pushed a lot of Establishment actors into Biden’s corner.

2. Joe Biden is losing it (and much too slowly). The former vice-president’s resilient appeal among a wide swath of the Democratic rank and file blunted what little momentum Harris had, and prevented the party’s moderate factions from consolidating behind any other candidate. But Biden also appears incapable of speaking in complete sentences for longer than a few minutes at a time. Cognitively and physically, he looks like a man in decline. His campaign schedule is light, and debate performances often cringeworthy. And yet, for all the turbulence Biden’s senescence has generated, his campaign has stayed aloft. Uncle Joe is still slightly ahead in the national polling average and in the early states of Iowa and Nevada. If South Carolina’s primary election were held today, meanwhile, Biden would collect nearly all of the Palmetto State’s delegates. Biden’s advantage over Warren has gone from commanding to essentially nonexistent. But he remains formidable enough to leave other moderates with little room for growth. Especially since …

3. The outsize role of money in politics now puts corporate Democrats at a disadvantage (in Democratic presidential primaries, anyway). This point may be controversial (and a little premature). But small-dollar online fundraising seems to have radically changed the political economy of presidential campaigns. Twitter is not “real life”; there are fewer highly engaged, ideologically committed progressive voters in the primary electorate than your social-media feed would suggest. But there are still way more progressive ideologues in this world than there are pro-choice financiers who are willing to donate the maximum $2,800 to a Democratic presidential campaign. Meanwhile, progressive Democrats don’t just tweet more than moderate ones — they also spend more of their disposal income on politics. Thus, candidates who command the enthusiasm of progressive news junkies now have a much easier time making payroll than those who don’t. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren aren’t just out-raising their rivals, they’re doing so without having to expend precious time and energy on ritzy fundraisers. Amy Klobuchar’s “no we can’t” message may have its virtues, but it doesn’t open all that many wallets. Which means as long as the big-dollar donors hedge their bets, our “broken” campaign-finance system has the effect of marginalizing pro-business voices (if only in the uniquely high-visibility context of a Democratic presidential primary).

All of which is to say, the Whitby Democrats’ fantasies of a Michelle Obama candidacy may be delusional, but this delusion is an understandable response to a grim reality. Their faction has unintentionally placed all of its bets on an old, increasingly lame horse who was infamous for mounting lousy presidential runs when he was in his prime. Some moderate donors are still telling themselves Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, or Amy Klobuchar have a chance. But the available evidence suggests those candidates’ prospects are only slightly better than those of Michael Bloomberg, John Kerry, and Deval Patrick. Biden is (almost certainly) the Establishment’s only hope.

And that’s good news for Democrats who are hoping for “big, structural change.”

How Centrist Democrats Botched the 2020 Primary