Thursday, August 13, 2015

Draft Biden, Justify Donald Trump

The news this week that Democratic Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has vaulted ahead of Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire polls has sent chattering class scurrying for cover.  It has also given renewed impetus to the "draft Biden" scenario.

Consider: Bernie Sanders is drawing large crowds at rallies around the nation--the largest of any political candidate on either side of the aisle, he's energizing a large part of the base of the Democratic party, and the response of the party leadership to his success on the campaign trail is to look around almost desperately for a more "suitable" candidate. The crowd favorite--the unquestioned crowd favorite, judging by the size of the crowds--has been deemed "unelectable" by the Democratic Party leadership.

The first primaries of the 2016 election season are still six months away, and candidates can rise and fall, and rise again many times in that time frame.  Howard Dean similarly energized crowds in the 2004 contest only to fade as the Iowa caucuses approached.  Moreover, on two occasions Sanders' rallies were upstaged by activists from the "Black Lives Matter" movement, and essentially driven from the stage by their tactics--and to prevent a third he has brought members of that movement into his campaign. To presume that Bernie Sanders has any sort of lock on the nomination at this juncture would be ludicrous.

Indeed, Bernie Sanders does not yet enjoy a broad base of support among minority voters--a key constituency of the Democratic Party; as late as July, his favorability rating among non-whites was still at a lethally low 25%. Having been twice on the receiving end of minority activist antics can hardly be seen to help strengthen that number, although it is also possible that embracing the Black Lives Matter activists within his campaign will help him connect better with minority constituencies.

It is also true that Bernie Sanders has refused to formally align with the Democratic Party before now; a self-identified Socialist, he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate but is nominally an Independent.  Whether that presents a credibility concern for him either with the Democrats or with the general electorate, should he win the nomination, remains an open question.

What is not an open question is that Bernie Sanders is surging in the Democratic polls, just as Donald Trump is leading in Republican Polls.  Indeed, the Washington Post has noted the odd parallels between these two campaigns from outside either party's mainstream, and then rather condescendingly wrote off both candidacies as transitory phenomenon, concluding that "this too--and these two--shall pass." The candidates grabbing not just the headlines but also the attention of the nation are not those from either party's rank and file--Bernie Sanders for the Democrats, and for the Republicans Donald Trump, followed (in some order) by Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson. The reality of the moment is that what these candidates are saying--and how they are saying it--is of far greater interest to Americans than the rhetoric coming from the more conventional candidates who have thus far thrown their hat into the ring.

It may very well be that Bernie Sanders' main selling point among Democratic voters is that he stands outside the status quo of Democratic politicians. His political career has been defined by his quirky refusal to embrace the apparatus of a political party, maintaining a stance as a political independent throughout his terms in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. At the very least, that notion of independence is being consciously articulated by Sanders' supporters. In a supreme political irony, a career politician has cast himself as the outsider and the agent of meaningful--and in this case liberal--political change, and the voters are rewarding that stance handsomely.

Whatever one makes of Bernie Sanders' politics or his proposals, that he is reflective of voters' desire to alter the status quo cannot be denied. In this coming presidential election cycle, the public demands different candidates, with different themes, different messages, different backgrounds. Even more than 2008, the animating force in the coming Presidential contest seems to be a rejection of the status quo, and a rejection of those who represent the status quo.

Which is why the chief beneficiary of any serious effort at this stage to draft Joe Biden into campaigning for President is likely to be....Donald Trump.  A career businessman who has never even run for elective office before (despite having flirted with a run for President in 2012), a recurring theme in "The Donald's" stump speech is a mantra he's repeated for years: "Nobody owns me". While Donald Trump is campaigning for the Republican nomination for President he has no grand affiliation with Republican party politics or the Republican party machine--and indeed has donated liberally to both Democrat and Republican candidates in the past, and has spoken out in favor of Democratic as well as Republican party policies. In his unapologetic attacks on illegal immigration, on bias in the media, and on the cronyism of both major political parties, Donald Trump has put forth an image of independence that so far has been matched by only one other candidate: Bernie Sanders.

By contrast, Joe Biden is someone who has been near the apex of Democratic leadership in Washington for decades, a two-time Presidential candidate who chaired Senate committees literally for decades prior to becoming Vice President in 2008. Regardless of his stance on issues, or his personal priorities for holding elective office, Joe Biden is nothing if not the ultimate insider. He is the status quo personified, the very thing voters on both sides of the political aisle are fervently rejecting.

If Bernie Sanders continues to dominate Hillary Clinton in the polls, and if the New Hampshire primaries draw near with him still enjoying a front-runner aura among Democrats, and if the Democratic Party leadership continues to respond to his success among Democratic voters by looking for anyone who can be a more "electable" alternative to Bernie Sanders, might that not broaden Donald Trump's appeal? If the Democrats throw Sanders under the proverbial bus, might that not create an opening for a Trump candidacy to woo erstwhile Democratic voters with his bombastic rhetorical pledge to "Make America great again," rhetoric that is every bit as populist as Sanders' own verbal assaults on economic, political, and racial inequality?

The Democratic Party would do well to consider the consequences of its actions. The alternative to a "President Sanders" might very well be a "President Trump."