Last month, the Bernie Sanders campaign sent a tweet that upset some people. It read “I’ve got news for the Republican establishment. I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment. They can’t stop us.”
While this sentiment may seem par for the course for an insurgent campaign like that of Sanders, it sent much of the liberal commentariat into an uproar. He was excoriated for dividing the party, for being too shouty and oppositional, and a whole host of other violations of proper party etiquette.
Yet for those closely watching the response of party loyalists, a certain incoherence was legible in the blowback. This incoherence was dramatized by one CNN talking head, who barked back that “The Democratic establishment gave us civil rights, voting rights, the assault weapons ban, social security and Medicare,” only to contradict himself a few days later by saying that, “There is no Democratic establishment.”
Which is it? Is the Democratic establishment the fount of decency and progress in American politics? Or something that only exists in the minds of deranged leftists?
For anyone pondering this question, the answer came definitively in the aftermath of the South Carolina primary: there is a party establishment and it’s backing Joe Biden.
In the wake of Biden’s victory in South Carolina — his campaign’s first sign of life in months — first Pete Buttigieg and then Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race. Despite having savaged each other just days earlier during the debate in Nevada, they are now united in backing Biden.
Now that the party has finally mustered the discipline it needed, the question is: what took them so long? With his name recognition and association with the Obama administration, Biden was always the most likely moderate to come out on top. Despite this, big Democratic donors still bet on Buttigieg, and Bloomberg racked up endorsements from congressmembers and mayors.
The time it took to coalesce around Biden can hardly be comforting for the establishment. Two dynamics are key.
First, Sanders’s sweep of the first three states created a situation where the party absolutely had to prevent him from running away with Super Tuesday if there was to be any hope of stopping him. No one had ever won Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada before, giving Sanders an indisputable claim to being the frontrunner. If the early states had delivered more ambiguous results, it is likely that the field would have remained more divided. But with Sanders’s victories, the establishment was left with no choice but to consolidate.
Second, and even more concerning, is the simple fact that Joe Biden has shown few signs of being a strong campaigner at any point in the primary. Worries about Biden’s ability to win were what convinced Buttigieg that he could emerge as the leading moderate with a win in Iowa. Similarly, Bloomberg was quite explicit that his entry into the race was prompted by concerns about the weakness of Biden’s campaign.
Throughout the race, Biden has had considerable difficulty fundraising compared to his rivals. While his win in South Carolina will undoubtedly deliver him a boost, there is little evidence that he inspires much enthusiasm among Democrats. His platform of a return to the normalcy of the Obama years may be popular among the party’s electorate, but it is not a vision that has drawn money or volunteers in the numbers necessary to win.
What’s more, there’s Biden’s weakness as a campaigner, which managed to escape discussion as a result of a crowded field with plenty of other sources of horse-race drama. David Axelrod, Obama’s former strategist, has noted that Biden seems to be “Mr. Magooing” his way through the primary, and that the campaign has put him in a “candidate protection program” to avoid negative press. He has failed to stand out in any of the debates, and done little to quell worries that his vigor is rapidly fading. Just this Sunday, he forgot the name of the interviewer to whom he was speaking.
These weaknesses are a big part of why the party only came around to Biden at the very last minute. Donors, officials, and media surrogates were all reluctant to commit themselves to a candidate whose campaign seemed one gaffe away from collapse — but Sanders’s victories have forced their hand.
Biden’s campaign, despite his impressive victory in South Carolina, has not fundamentally changed. The party’s consolidation around Biden surely makes Sanders’s task more difficult. But it would be a mistake to think it means that he’s finished. Now that the establishment is unified, the fight has finally begun.