Super Tuesday delivered an astonishing reordering of the presidential race, in the person of a newly revived Joe Biden. Did you see that coming? Before Super Tuesday, headlines were blaring about Sanders’s tightening grip on the liberal wing and the demise of the establishment. Now it’s all about the Biden “miracle.” What a difference a day made.
The reversal brought relief to Democrats obsessed with preventing a second Trump term. For these Americans (full disclosure: I’m one of them), the nadir of the past three years was the bizarre exoneration party Trump threw for himself after his impeachment acquittal, an obscene spectacle in which a preening, sneering American President—speaking publicly in the White House—dismissed his impeachment as “bullshit” while spewing insults at the “losers,” “lowlifes,” “sleazeballs,” and “scumbags” who opposed him. Before him sat all the Republican senators—his courtiers and capos, applauding and sycophantically accepting his tributes, as one by one he called on them and bestowed his blessing, like a mob boss. This display was followed in short order by brazen actions: the firings of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, who testified against him; and the crass intervention in the sentencing of Roger Stone. The whole series of events made dismally clear that our government exists at the mercy and whim of a president who views its institutions as his personal playthings and its employees as his vassals.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was busily plowing ahead, cultivating a field of candidates who seemed ill-suited to the brutal heat of the coming campaign. Who among them could win? Super Tuesday exposed broad doubts about Bernie Sanders as that optimal anti-Trump candidate. Are those reservations well founded? A number of planks in the Sanders platform are, as has been widely noted, unpopular with the majority of Americans, including eliminating all private health insurance, letting prisoners vote, decriminalizing illegal border crossings, and providing free health care to undocumented immigrants. In the past he’s also argued for nationalization of the energy industry; public ownership of banks, telephone, electric, and drug companies; and a 100 percent income tax on the highest income earners in America.
It’s reasonable to doubt that an astronomically costly socialist agenda—one that cancels private health insurance overnight—can win a majority of American voters. Moreover, while Sanders’s primary rivals mostly didn’t test his special vulnerabilities, as the nominee he’d face a withering onslaught. Can you say, “Honeymoon in Moscow”? (Yes, that’s where the Sanderses went in 1988, celebrating their commitment in the capital of world Communism.) There will be the video of Bernie in the USSR, shirtless and singing “This Land Is Your Land” after relaxing in a sauna. There will be his pilgrimages to Nicaragua and Cuba, his fawning praise of Castro and Ortega. The GOP has this material locked and loaded. When “Curb American Imperialism” goes to the polls against “Keep America Great,” who do you think wins?
In one sense it has seemed fitting that Bernie might face Trump. The two are creations of the same urgent national crisis. Both are outsiders responding to a widespread sense that the system is not only broken but rigged. As candidates of anger—Trump of grievance and resentment, Bernie of righteous indignation—both have a populist appeal categorically different from that of other candidates; each turns to hurting Americans and says, It’s not your fault—it’s theirs. In Trump-world, the enemy is liberal elites—in media, government, academia, and the professions—who feel snootily superior to working-class Americans and who are opening the gates to hordes of immigrants. In the Sanders critique, it’s a ruling class that over the last three decades—prompted by Reaganomics and abetted by Wall Streeters of both parties—has gone on a grotesque spree of greed while capturing our politics. Sanders’s gestural tic of pointing his finger perfectly captures today’s accusatory zeitgeist. Up against his—and Trump’s—vehement blaming, the coolly technocratic establishmentarianism of a Pete Buttigieg never had a chance. I like Mayor Pete. But he was speaking very politely into some loud headwinds.