The first days of March 2020 will be remembered as the Great Consolidation, the moment the Democratic Party establishment finally realized it was stuck with Joe Biden and finally, with the phoniest enthusiasm, embraced him as their man.
The Great Consolidation was impressive for a last-minute, slapdash operation. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race, endorsing Biden. Former candidate Beto O’Rourke endorsed Biden in an attempt to improve his prospects in Texas. By continuing her campaign despite having no plausible democratic path to the nomination, Elizabeth Warren sought to split the progressive vote going into Super Tuesday, ultimately boosting Biden. Michael Bloomberg continued to crowd the moderate lane, but his presence was tolerated on account of his commitment to derailing Biden’s main opponent Bernie Sanders and the vast personal fortune he can dedicate to this project.
But the Great Consolidation had one major flaw: Joe Biden himself. Biden appears to suffer from a particular type of cognitive deterioration that affects the content of his speech, more than its cadence or delivery, so that it’s possible to feel as though one is following along until the realization dawns that the substance is incomprehensible, and has been the entire time. This is one of the primary reasons the Democratic Party’s donors and kingmakers were hesitant to close ranks around Biden early on. On the one hand, he poses no threat to the party’s basic corporate-friendly program, but on the other, it’s difficult to miss that his mind is going soft.
Influential Democrats no doubt hoped that one of the other moderate candidates would prove to be a hit with the electorate, helping to bring the movers and shakers on the right flank into alignment. What they failed to grasp is that moderates are not naturally appealing to the Democratic Party’s base. To make them appealing, enormous amounts of money and influence are required. That error cost the party elite a whole year, which they spent nervously glancing at their watches, waiting for something to happen that only they themselves could have proactively accomplished.
To obstruct the rise of their nemesis Bernie Sanders, the centrist top brass should have consolidated much earlier around someone capable of making a decent case against the Vermont senator’s galvanizing message, his class-struggle rhetoric, and his moving appeals to solidarity. If I had been in their position, I would have chosen Amy Klobuchar.
Of all this cycle’s major candidates, Klobuchar is the only true believer besides Bernie Sanders himself. Biden is a lost mercenary, Buttigieg a self-serving careerist, Bloomberg a politically incurious egotist, and Warren a weathervane pivoting on its axis. Unlike the rest, Klobuchar has a coherent ideology. She is a dyed-in-the-wool neoliberal who believes in trickle-down economics, strict law and order, and bootstraps meritocracy. Her disdain for Medicare for All and tuition-free public college, and the principles of cooperation and redistribution that animate them, is entirely authentic.
Klobuchar’s sneering contempt for even mild social-democratic reforms mirrors the Democratic Party’s position over the last forty-five years, and even those of us who find that position indefensible must admit that she articulates it clearly, and occasionally convincingly. If party elites had spent months funneling donor money her way, playing up her no-nonsense heartland charm, downplaying her abusive management style, and giving her ample airtime to inveigh condescendingly against “magic genie” policies, she might have proven a worthy opponent to Bernie Sanders.
But even if she hadn’t been passed up by the party establishment, Klobuchar would have had a hard time in the general election. In order to beat Donald Trump, a candidate will need to flip Obama-Trump voters back and bring in new and disillusioned voters. They’ll have to shake things up, which means they’ll need to represent desirable transformation, not the defective status quo.
But counterfactuals like these are ultimately unknowable. What we do know is this: the Democratic Party establishment is in such bad shape — so disorganized, so politically out of touch, so devoid of any real strategic talent — that they couldn’t even recognize an effective messenger of their own core principles when they saw her. If Joe Biden does manage to eke out a victory over Sanders, all it will show is a party brass whose brute power managed to compensate for their total obliviousness.