The Gathering Gloom.
Below is a column I wrote yesterday, which is now up on The Boston Globe’s website. If you go to the Globe’s site to read it, you’re likely to run into a paywall. So I’ve re-printed here for my (not yet so many) readers at Medium.com.
Sometime around Halloween, the mood began to shift. Democrats had enjoyed the summer and the early autumn. Swing state polls were upbeat, administration scandals on full display. President Trump’s top-line number, regardless of which Democratic candidate he was paired with in hypothetical general election match-ups, never seemed to rise above 43 percent. A narrow majority of registered voters said they would vote against the president regardless of who might be his eventual opponent.
Better yet, from the point of view of the Democratic establishment and its financiers, electability was back in fashion. “Beat Trump, and we’ll worry about the rest later” was the order of the day. It was keeping former vice president Joe Biden afloat. And in the event that he faltered, Michael Bloomberg was waiting in the wings, extravagantly self-funded and brandishing file folders full of moderate credentials.
Alas, the weather got colder, happy days receded, and gloom advanced; slowly at first, then seemingly all at once. The Bernie Sanders revival, following the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was the first troubling sign, Biden’s inability to spark enthusiasm the next. Privately, the pundits viewed both men’s chances of winning the general election as slim to none.
But it wasn’t just the weakness of the frontrunners. The weakness of the case for impeachment, politically speaking, also depressed the party’s mood. The House inquiry and subsequent vote to impeach seemed only to have strengthened public opposition to President Trump’s removal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s assertion last spring that Trump “wasn’t worth” impeaching — by which she meant that it would backfire — seemed more prescient and depressing every day.
Time marched on. The president will be acquitted Wednesday and thus will end the second attempt at his ouster. The first, the Mueller Report, ended not in defeat so much as torpor. Mueller himself seemed disgusted by the whole thing and in his one and only press conference said, almost with disdain, “read the report” and then promptly left the stage. No one seemingly did read the report. The president filled the void with tweets proclaiming “total exoneration.”
Democrats were realistic about impeachment’s chances in the Senate, but were hoping that disturbing revelations would be followed by even more disturbing revelations, causing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s moderate flank to fall. And even if a vote to convict ultimately fell short, the collective weight of the revelations would inflict lasting damage on the president’s reelection prospects.
It did the opposite. It made the president appear invulnerable; seemingly able to withstand any attack and keep marching toward reelection like some kind of political Terminator. “The amazing thing about Trump,” said Roger Ailes as he pondered the prospect of a Trump presidency just prior to the Inauguration in 2017, “is that he just keeps going. That’s what they don’t understand.”
And if he couldn’t be killed by two serious assaults on his presidency, then perhaps he wasn’t the Terminator, perhaps he was now Superman, a heroic figure battling against forces aligned to tear down the nation’s character and purpose. In the president’s reelection campaign screenplay, he was battling the woke, the condescending news media, and haughty coastal elites, while holding back the immigrant tide and fighting for the rights of gun owners and the unborn.
His disruption of the normal course of politics was scripted as a feature, not a bug. He was sent to Washington to blow it up. That was the point. And so long as all that was the focus of the political discussion and debate, Trump always had the upper hand, by virtue of his platform and his dominance on social media. He could never be ignored, which meant he was always viable.
In January the polls finally caught up with the Democrats. Trump was on the upswing, especially in swing states. Survival was a strategy, it turned out. Emerging from the fight, bloodied but unbowed, made him much larger than he was in everyday life. And the Democrats seemed smaller — less commanding — by comparison.
Out of all this came something no one suspected: a Sanders surge in the past few weeks. The idea being — apparently — that if you’re going to lose, you might as well go down fighting. That spirit captured the new mood of a slim but nevertheless consistent plurality of the primary and caucus-attending electorate. From trailing Biden in December, Sanders suddenly led him in a number of key states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California.
And then it all came unraveled Monday night in Des Moines. The Democrats literally couldn’t count the vote, an elemental skill in professional politics, sort of like skating is to hockey.
When they finally did count the vote, there was bad news all around: The turnout, which had been pre-sold as a tsunami, turned out to be an ordinary wave. It matched the 2016 turnout for Hillary Clinton and Sanders, but it was well short of the 2008 turnout. The non-arrival of the promised surge stunned everyone, Democrats most of all.
Then there were the individual vote totals/percentages. Biden finished fourth with 16 percent. Sanders, who attracted 49 percent of the votes in 2016, attracted less than 30 percent this time. Senator Elizabeth Warren faded, as expected. Only Pete Buttigieg had a story to tell. It was a good story and probably will force Biden to abandon ship in New Hampshire and hope his firewall holds in South Carolina. Senator Amy Klobuchar met expectations. The expectation now is that she will soon be out of the race.
Into the gathering gloom the candidates trudged; New Hampshire next, then Nevada. A long slog or a quick departure for each awaits. Everyone will have spent all their money by Super Tuesday; the television media markets in California alone can gobble up $20 million in a week’s time.
And at exactly that moment, when they’re all flat broke, the Trump campaign will attack, full force, with wave after wave of television and social media messaging, branding the Democrats as soft-on-immigration socialists hell-bent on taking away your private health insurance, taxing you at every turn, and forcing you to kneel during the National Anthem.
What the Democrats will need then, quite simply, is money to mount a counter-attack of overwhelming force, overwhelmingly applied. And the more you think about it, the more you think the Democratic Party’s best, perhaps only, hope of defeating Donald Trump is Michael Bloomberg.
John Ellis, a former Globe columnist, is editor of News Items. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.