The Super Tuesday Sting

This is the sixth of a periodic series on the early primaries and caucuses. The other pieces can be found here.

Joe and Jill Biden on the campaign trail. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

The fix on Super Tuesday in the presidential election was a clubhouse deal in which the elders of the Democratic Party, led by Barack Obama, shook down the primary system to teach Bernie Sanders a civics lesson, which is that the party ideals must remain convertible into gold or silver.

I know that, at least on paper, the current Democratic Party is the heir of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, not to mention Franklin Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan (who in 1896 championed silver and what was called “bimetallism”), and in theory it is in the game to articulate progressive ideas for social change and betterment.

Hence all the primary blather in this cycle about addressing climate change and righting economic inequality.

It sounds good at a New Hampshire town meeting, but when the SUV rubber meets the road in a candidate’s motorcade, the Democratic Party is a protection racket for corporate placemen and military contractors (as is, I might add, the Republican Party).

Hence the Biden resurrection in the days leading up to the Super Tuesday vote, in which a 77-year-old surgically enhanced, clinically dead candidate was brought back to life as Woodrow Wilson. (They would have thrown in fourteen points, if any of the fix-it men thought Joe could remember more than half of them.)

Why the rage against Bernie? Granted, Sanders is a grouchy old man (Hillary: “No one likes him…”) with his own ideas on wealth and power who has rarely “self-identified” as a Democrat.

Sanders was also the socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and in various runs for the House and Senate he’s flown independent flags of convenience more than those of Democratic Party loyalty.

Just to run against Hillary Clinton in 2016 Bernie had to register as a Democrat, and in that election, when it looked as though he might defeat the party’s preordained candidate of choice, the organization’s machinery was pressed into high gear to bring him down on Super Tuesday. It’s his Ides of March.

In 2020, the fix was made in a series of phone calls to the likes of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, neither of whom (I presume) would have been delighted to hear that, after campaigning for more than a year, they were 1) dropping out of the race before Super Tuesday and 2) endorsing Joe Biden.

Word has it that Obama called Buttigieg with this happy news. I cannot verify that he did, but certainly he or someone in his circle would have made the calls, with the message along the lines of “we know where you live.” (Just before dropping out Buttigieg tapped his wine cavemen for another round of campaign donations; I am sure they loved how that tasted, especially after their sommelier quit a few days later.)

Why Buttigieg and Klobuchar went along with the Democratic grifters is also easy to imagine. Vain and singing songs of himself, Buttigieg, I am sure, was told he had “run well” and had “a great future,” and that if he got out now, the boys in the clubhouse would “remember him” down the road.

For Klobuchar, the deal would have gone down like this: “Get out now when your five percent in the polls has some value, and, while we can’t promise you anything, Joe will put you on the shortlist for vice-presidential consideration once he wraps up the nomination. Otherwise, don’t let the door hit you on your way back to Minnesota…”

Buttigieg and Klobuchar were both made to understand that they would have nothing to gain from an alliance with Bernie. Protection schemes operate in the same fashion.

Why would Obama orchestrate such a fix against Sanders and, at the same time, give the equally progressive Elizabeth Warren, who once worked for him, the back of his hand?

I know that in the thumb-worn copies of Dreams From My Father, Obama is eternally the Chicago community organizer and people’s tribune. But that imagery was always just another campaign bumper sticker.

Obama 2.0 is a Washington insider with a $14 million house on Martha’s Vineyard and a private jet to visit the Clooneys’ vacation home in Italy or Richard Branson’s yacht in the Pacific, and he would have heard Bernie’s soak-the-rich speeches with the same horror as would have his friends at the Columbia Country Club.

For the Democratic establishment, which happily bailed out the banks in 2009 to the tune of trillions, at the very least Biden is an accommodating cog in the machine who will steady roiling markets, appoint compliant judges, fix contracts with Lockheed, and make nice to Israel (much like Obama and unlike Bernie).

In a historical context, Biden is best understood as a clubhouse-directed pol who will happily follow orders. Although he was Republican, Chester A. Arthur played this role for Roscoe Conkling, much as Democrats Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk took their instructions from the Andrew Jackson cohort.

Or there’s the Tammany Hall-controlled mayor of New York City who, upon his election, was asked who would be his chief of police. His answer: “I don’t know. I haven’t gotten the word yet.”

Leading up to the March 3 primaries in fourteen states, the cards for Biden fell into place as if in one of those stacked decks in The Sting, where Paul Newman and Robert Redford play con artists. (Doyle Lonnegan: “Your boss is quite a card player, Mr. Kelly; how does he do it?” Johnny Hooker: “He cheats.”)

On Super Tuesday Bernie was hung out to dry and left to run against the pumped-up Biden, a limping Bloomberg, and an isolated Warren. The rest of the field had vanished, although Tulsi Gabbard was present.

I am sure the Democratic establishment made an effort to get Bloomberg out of the race before Super Tuesday but that he would not budge, and probably only left afterward with the promise that he will get to be secretary of the Treasury in a forthcoming Biden administration.

At least they talked him out of running as an independent, and no doubt touched him up for several hundred million in campaign donations.

The party would have been happy to leave Warren in place on all those Super Tuesday ballots, there to bleed Sanders all the more.

Warren was the second chump in what went down before Super Tuesday and came away with nothing, despite having done the party’s bidding and taken down loose cannon Bloomberg.  She quit the race without endorsing Biden or Sanders, in effect scattering her supporters to the winds. I suspect she’s angry at both men: at Biden for using her to weaken Sanders on Super Tuesday; and at Sanders for their earlier unpleasant exchanges over whether he had said a woman cannot win in 2020. At least by not winning the nomination, Warren spares herself eight month’s on the receiving end of Trump’s Twitter bile.

Will the Biden sting hold? The problem is that, even now as the frontrunner, he remains a terrible candidate, and, if required to debate Sanders, may be exposed as an empty suit prone to speaking gibberish.

Biden’s handlers can be happy that the next scheduled debate on March 15 is only after the vote in Michigan, which could be decisive.

Biden is what in the nineteenth century was called a “hurrah” candidate, for which the only requirement of his supporters was to shout “hurrah” whenever his name was mentioned. But in this election his new-found enemies will also get a chance to vote, if not to stuff their own ballot boxes.

Bernie’s nuclear option is a third-party candidacy, in the tradition of his hero, Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president five times with the Socialist Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, advocating many of the same ideas that Sanders articulates today.

A third-party run, or at least the threat of one, is not as far-fetched as it seems, given the screwing that the Democrats have given Bernie in 2016 and now in 2020. Certainly Sanders supporters aren’t feeling much burn these days for the Democratic Party.

On the debate stages Bernie has pledged to support the eventual Democratic nominee and has championed the idea that the candidate with a plurality of delegates at the convention should be the candidate. But somewhere in Bernie’s mind he must be thinking: “I didn’t sign up for a tilted roulette wheel or loaded dice.”

For better and for worse, fielding a third-party candidates is one of the time-honored American ways to change the outcome of an election.

Running in 1912 as a “Bull Moose” (it’s formal name was the Progressive Party), Teddy Roosevelt denied the presidency to William Howard Taft, his successor from whom he had become estranged.

Other elections in which third-party candidates influenced the outcome took place in 1824 (Henry Clay delivered the presidency to John Quincy Adams, over Andrew Jackson), 1860 (actually there were four candidates, enabling Abraham Lincoln to defeat Douglas), 1968 (George Wallace took the Democratic South away from the Democrats and gave Richard Nixon the presidency), 1992 (Ross Perot helped to elect Bill Clinton) , and 2000 (Ralph Nader).

Bernie might like his chances as a third-party candidate, if only to send back a message to the Obama gang. He would have no trouble raising money or volunteers, and he would begin with a solid base of support.

Sanders could make the argument that Trump and Biden (not to mention their handlers) represent a discredited establishment of wealth and privilege.

Running as an independent could well speak to Bernie’s political past and soul, although he might be sensitive to the charge that he would be helping to re-elect Donald Trump.

Of course, standing against Bernie in a general election (as happened on Super Tuesday) would be the two parties’ long experience in stealing elections. It’s the great American political tradition.

In recent times the Republicans managed to fix the election in 2016 (Trump and the Russian bots), 2000 (the Supremes), and 1972 (Watergate), while the Democrats marked the cards in 1960 (the turnout from Mayor Daley’s Chicago graveyards).

By my counting, more than a quarter of American presidencies have been decided by factors other than the popular expression of the voters.

Maybe Biden will become the Rutherford B. Hayes of our times? He ran in the 1876 election against New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, who won the popular vote and probably a majority in the electoral college.

Republican operatives, however, threw the election to Hayes, much as George W. Bush won the presidency through a stacked Supreme Court. Of Hayes, it was later said: “He did such a good job I almost wish he had been elected.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.