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Carolina and Super Tuesday on My Mind

The fifth of a periodic series on the early primaries and caucuses, this was written before the vote in South Carolina. The other pieces can be found here.

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Tom Steyer on the campaign trail. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

Wanting to get the lowdown on the primaries, I reached out to an insider, who sent back this reply:

I don’t know why you call it “a race” when it’s all over except for the shouting—Bernie by about ten furlongs.

The only people who are still talking about a brokered convention or the rise of centrism (think of a fifties monster looming out of the swamp) are the coiffed talking heads on “Morning Joe” or Stephanopoulos, who must have cue cards that they dust off every four years from which they spin fantasies about the 1924 convention (John W. Davis nominated on the 103rd ballot).

Who is going to come back to spin on CNN if they say, “Yeah, Bernie’s got it now, so don’t bother me until Labor Day, unless he gets the endorsement of Raul Castro.”

I grant you that Biden might win in South Carolina but it’s an outlier. Just the idea of a Democratic primary in a state like that is an absurdity.

Every six years South Carolina re-elects Lindsey Graham to the Senate based on Lindsey reminding the voters down there that he grew up in the back of a saloon. I guess Donald Trump was out front pressing twenties into the dancers’ stockings; something has to explain that bromance.

After South Carolina “votes” (it’s a state that has 3 million voters and about 300,000 will vote in the Democratic primary), the big top will move next week to Super Tuesday where the lead story on Disappointment Wednesday will be the Great Electoral Implosion of Michael R. Bloomberg (D-NDA).

Four hundred million bucks spent on self-addressed Valentine’s Day cards does not get you as many hookups as it used it.

I know what you’re thinking: not everyone who votes on Super Bowl Tuesday will have stayed up late to watch Bloomberg trying to spin his Salomon Brothers frat humor into primary wins.

But they can watch Stephen Colbert the next morning on their phones while putting gas in the car, and they will see that in the Nevada and South Carolina debates Bloomberg was Oz when Dorothy pulled back the curtain to reveal a little man who is “a very bad Wizard.”

I am not even sure Bloomberg was that good a mayor, and I am not just talking about all those teenagers who got life for hopping turnstiles. (If New York ever hosts the Olympics, it would be the only local sport.)

Mayor Bloomberg is the one who sold off New York to the Saudis and Russians for whom the Manhattan property market is the equivalent of a Cook Islands strongbox—a place to stash your hot money.

He says he can’t stand Donald Trump, and I am sure that’s the case, but otherwise he’s never met a New York promoter he didn’t love, and now the city is a gated community where it takes key money of $25 million to live within an hour of your job.

Bloomberg isn’t going down on Super Tuesday just because he turned New York into the Big Oligarchy. He’s going down because in two debates he looked like a white guy in a tailored suit who spent too much time at work, as they used to say, “looking down Broadway.”

Americans aren’t stupid. You can give a hundred million bucks or more to save whales, pass gun laws, empower start-up dry cleaners in Bushwick, and send gifted ten-year-olds to college, but if on stage you look like a combed-over accountant with your hand on the secretary’s knee, you’re done.

Nor does anyone buy the line that a raft of former employees would sign non-disclosure agreements to hush up “jokes” told around the water cooler. Since Bloomberg doesn’t have any jokes, I am assuming that what’s not being disclosed is something else.

For his billion dollars of TV and radio ads, Bloomberg will emerge from Super Tuesday with 10 percent of the vote and a handful of delegates to the convention. (Imagine spending all that money so you can buy 4 or 5 delegates from Oklahoma? I hope they are deductible.) Then we will be done with the Great Centrist Hope, and he can go back to his wilderness of mirrors.

*

Even if Bloomberg is going down for the count, it doesn’t mean that Joe Biden will be back leading the parade of the Anybody But Bernie coalition.

I know, that’s his dream, and when he wins South Carolina, all those carnival barkers on CNN will proclaim that he’s tanned, rested, and ready to move forward (without pointing out that he’s a twenty-percent guy, if that, on Super Tuesday).

Congressman James Clyburn did Joe a solid in South Carolina, and timed his endorsement for the Wednesday before the vote, which made it sound like breaking news and a groundswell of support for Biden.

These guys have worked together for forty years, and Jim wouldn’t mind rounding out his career with a cabinet post or maybe an ambassadorship. He’s also by nature a conservative Democrat who doesn’t warm to the People’s Republic of Bernie or Warren. Where else would he go?

The Clyburn endorsement checked Bernie’s encroachment on black voters in South Carolina, and for a week or so it may save Biden’s candidacy. But all the king’s horses and all the king’s spin doctors will not save Biden after Super Tuesday.

In every sense of the word, Biden has run out of gas. He’s low on ideas, money, delegates, and voter support. I would add to that some energy, as Biden out on the trail has the look of a dead man campaigning. (If this is Tuesday, I must be in Nevada…)

Maybe if there were a senior tour for the presidential election, Biden could win a few tournaments or at least come out of the campaign with some commercials for Hertz. (“When you run as aimlessly as I do all over this great country, you need a reliable car….”)

More fundamentally, the reason Biden is going nowhere is that he doesn’t stand for anything except an Obama restoration, and even for that I am not sure the voters would choose Biden any more than an NFL general manager would rebuild his team today around Peyton Manning.

In many respects the Biden candidacy looks like an update on the 2016 Hillary fix, in which Obama and the Democratic National Committee thought they could rig the election for the Clintons.

In the 2016 primaries Bernie was given the bum’s rush, and in the general election—for God and country—members of the Democratic coalition were told to overlook the Clinton money machine (it ran far on oil from the Gulf states) and Bill’s abuse of women. The voters smelled a rat and stayed away enough to elect Trump.

Four years later Biden is basing his candidacy on Obama and Clintonism, and it just will not wash.

I guess it doesn’t help that Joe never really had an A-game out on the campaign trail. If you go to his events, you will find that voters really like him personally, but then about half way through his remarks they are checking their phones or thinking about what to buy for dinner.

Here’s an example: at Joe’s get-out-the-vote rally in Des Moines, Iowa, he flew in a lot of Democratic big wigs, including former Secretary of State and Democratic nominee (not to mention Swift boat skipper) John Kerry.

It was bizarre, as though Joe was introducing his cabinet. Would anyone in Iowa really decide about Biden based on his friendship with wind-surfer John Kerry?

Then, back at the hotel, a reporter overheard Kerry on his cell phone telling someone that Biden’s campaign was dead on arrival and that maybe Kerry needed to jump into the race to save the republic. Anyway, so long Joe.

The irony about Super Tuesday is that all those centrists still in the race—Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, and Biden—will make it that much easier for Bernie to win a plurality in most of the contested states. (I can’t see Biden winning any.)

All Bernie has to do is get about 30 percent of the vote, and he’s home free. And Tupperware parties get higher turnouts than most primaries.

***

The only one challenging Bernie on the Democratic left is Elizabeth Warren, who has everything you need to be a successful candidate: she has credentials from Harvard, an uptempo delivery (think of one of those morning exercise shows on TV), a library of plans, a soak-the-rich punch line, and a gleaming golden retriever (Bailey) who will stand obediently for hours at the head of the selfie line. (Sergeant Preston only had his Husky, Yukon King.)

Warren has everything except wins. I guess she has a chance in Oklahoma and Massachusetts on Super Tuesday (she’s native to both states, so to speak), but I think Bernie will squeak out a win in Massachusetts, ending Warren’s chances of going for the gold.

Her question becomes this: how to extract the best return from Bernie for dropping out of the race?

Ironically, her greatest leverage will come before Super Tuesday, when she could tilt the wheel decisively for Bernie.

If she waits until after Super Tuesday to quit, when Bernie will have a decisive lead, she will not bring much to the Sanders victory party, and that will lessen her chances of getting chosen as the vice-presidential candidate.

Strategy has never been Warren’s strong suit. She’s good at retail politics (all those selfies and Bailey) but the big game eludes her. In these primaries, she refused to tack toward the middle and take on Biden and other centrists, preferring to run as Bernie’s clone on the far left. (They remind me of the John C. Frémont campaign in 1856, for which the slogan was: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Frémont!”)

Warren’s positions are Bernie’s, but then she gets attacked for not knowing what her plans will cost while Bernie is given an old-man’s pass, as Trump often gets for his sweeping pronouncements. And even though Bernie sounds like a Sheepshead Bay foghorn when he speaks, voters still prefer his voice to Warren’s (expressing the same ideas).

I am sure that Sanders and Warren personally like each other and work well together in the Senate (voting for bills or impeachments that never pass). I am not convinced that short of a blockbuster deal between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday (for her 10 percent of the electorate in the primaries) that Bernie will pick her as his running mate.

He does need to pick a woman, I suspect, and he might also need to pick a woman of color, such as Senator Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams, who ran and lost for governor in Georgia. He might also need to pick someone a lot younger than he is, and Warren is 70 while Abrams is 46. (Between Abrams and Harris, Abrams is the better campaigner, and doesn’t come with Harris’s prosecutorial, up-against-the-wall baggage.)

My guess is that Warren will screw up her end game just as she did her first act, in 2015, when Bernie went to her and said he would not challenge Hillary Clinton if Warren got in the race. She demurred, and he rode the chariots of fire.

***

We don’t need to spend a lot of time on Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Steyer, as none of them have anything to trade with Bernie. (“What’s he got on me?” was apparently the response of Vince McMahon, the wrestling promoter, when once asked for severance pay by an employee he had fired.)

The irony about Buttigieg is that emotionally he’s the oldest person in the race. Even Biden has more appeal to millennials than does Pete, who is more like the headmaster of a private school, in the vein of Mr. Chips lecturing about dangling participles, than he is an accomplished politician. So I can’t see Bernie picking him as a running mate. (No country for two old men?)

I suspect Pete is still in the race because a lot of corporate money and Obama pros are behind him, as a centrist alternative to Bernie’s lectures about dialectical materialism.

On Super Tuesday, if he finishes behind the Joker (Michael Bloomberg) and Biden, this particular highlight on his golden resumé (Harvard, McKinsey, the US army reserves, etc.) will be deferred to 2024 or 2028.

Pete’s only chance to salvage something for his Twitter account in this cycle is to finish behind Bernie in a number of Super Tuesday states, but I don’t see it happening, as he will place behind Warren, for sure, in Oklahoma and Massachusetts, and I can’t see him getting much traction in Texas and Florida, where minorities are a large part of the electorate.

Pete has improved his campaign skills, but he still looks like someone trying to find his fastball in Triple-A rather than a starter ready for the Show.

***

Klobuchar had her five minutes of fame in Iowa and New Hampshire, but since then the search for Centrifugal Force has moved on, at least from Amy.

She has more legislative wins than either Bernie or Warren, who are at the talk end of the spectrum, at least in the Senate. If you need a new bridge in your state, go to Amy. If you need a lecture on income inequality, find Bernie.

If America wanted a coalition government, it might well choose Amy to be prime minister, as she would do a professional job shepherding apportionment bills through a divided parliament, in the manner of some Danish or Dutch party leader.

But politics in the United States is now a blood sport more than the art of the possible, and Klobuchar only speaks to compromise, the last thing on most minds. I can’t see her winning any primary on Super Tuesday other than that in Minnesota.

She can console herself that she’s lasted longer in the race than other candidates, including many senators and governors. And it’s possible that she can hang around long enough (although I doubt it) for vice-presidential consideration.

As a vice-presidential candidate, Amy doesn’t energize many bases that Bernie hasn’t already covered, although I guess with her midwestern values and soccer-mom-ism she could help to humanize him. (Good luck with that.)

***

Finally, we get to political hobbyist Tom Steyer, who may have done more damage than he realizes to the billionaire political aspirations of Michael Bloomberg.

Before Mike was “getting it done” with his national PR media blitz, the only billionaires (they deserve some representation too?) in the race were Steyer and Trump, both of whom give great wealth the air of lottery winnings.

(A Nebraska senator, Roman Hruska, once said about a Supreme Court nominee: “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”)

Before Bloomberg mangled his first debate (“…maybe they didn’t like a joke I told?”), we had Trump and then Steyer devaluing the billionaire class to the point that it now looks like, as Dr. Johnson would say, “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” (Sam said that about patriotism but it works also for Trump rallies.)

I am sure Steyer is perplexed that so few have lined up behind his television and radio ads, not to mention all those billboards floating in Iowa cornfields, and that no one wants to march with him to political Nirvana (he does sound like an itinerant faith healer).

Steyer has logical, Warren-ish plans to revamp everything from the economy to global warming, and he has street cred (if perhaps in a Tesla) in funding the impeach Trump movement before it was appearing in a local theater near you.

In South Carolina, Steyer might manage to blip the radar with a second or third place vote, but after that he will be back to addressing the California wind. But give Steyer this credit: he’s better informed on the issues than Mayor Bloomberg, although both give the impression that they view the presidency as a resort development.

***

All this leaves us with the $64,000 game show question, “Can Bernie beat Trump?” Since you only asked about Super Tuesday, I will stop here. There’s lot of time to answer that question.

Before closing, I will leave you with one doomsday scenario, at least for the Democrats, which is that Michael Bloomberg’s national ego has been bruised, and to take revenge he may decide to run as a third-party candidate.

Third and fourth parties are great American traditions—from the Know Nothings and the Greenback Party to Teddy’s Bull Moose Party and John Schmitz’s 1972 American Independent Party (it had a Schlitz-like beer slogan: “When you’re out of Schmitz, you’re out of gear…”).

Have a careful look at Bloomberg’s “Mike will get it done” spots. They all say he’s a “candidate for president,” but none hint that he’s running as a Democrat, and all of the ads could easily be recycled in the service of a third-party candidacy.

Nor should anyone minimize the vanity of someone whose assets include $60 billion plus a few NDAs, and I could well imagine Bloomberg’s anger and rage over Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders playing him for the fool on the debate stage.

Of course one of Bloomberg’s 2,000+ paid campaign staff members might point out that “getting it done” with a third-party, independent candidacy could assure Trump’s re-election.

The scorned Mike may see the world as he saw his elections for mayor in New York, in which he became the single candidate, embracing all wings of both parties. Why can’t he catch the same bi-partisan magic on the national stage?

Nothing galvanizes the press coverage of an election more than a few losers, and after Super Tuesday it can pick over the campaign bodies of Biden and Bloomberg.

Without any money, Biden will take his marbles and go home to Wilmington, but Bloomberg might look at his $400 million investment in 85 scattered delegates as a sunk cost and decide to hold the country hostage to his fortune. He would not be the first billionaire to try it.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails and Appalachia Spring. His most recent book, published this summer, is The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century.  

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