Watching Democrats prepare for next year’s presidential contest is a lot like a famous scene in a 1950s James Dean movie, in which rebellious youths take turns hurtling cars towards a cliff, to see who can leap out the latest before the car plummets over the edge.
Will they stop in time? Will they come to their senses before it’s too late? Or will they throw everything away in a mad, foolish moment of wasted opportunity?
That Donald Trump is a vulnerable president is not in question. He’s been running up a string of disconcerting losses in state elections, the latest in Louisiana on Saturday where intense efforts by the White House and two appearances by Trump himself failed to elect a Republican candidate whose campaign consisted largely of depicting himself as the president’s greatest admirer. It was a close-run thing in the end — the incumbent governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, is more conservative than many Republicans and bested his opponent by just 40,000 votes — but still; Trump won Louisiana by 20 points in 2016 and openly pleaded for a GOP win to keep him from being embarrassed.
Many Democrats, taking their cue from Dean, seem intent on racing towards the cliff edge
He can be beaten, even with the solid support of his faithful fans. Yet many Democrats, taking their cue from Dean, seem intent on racing towards the cliff edge with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the driver’s seat, risking disaster if she doesn’t get out in time.
Warren’s star was rising steadily until she conceded to pressure to release the cost of her signature health plan, which would scrap the existing system for government-run universal coverage. Plenty of Americans were already wary of the fact her proposal would strip them of coverage they are happy with. When Warren revealed her replacement would cost $52 trillion over 10 years — $20.5 trillion on top of current spending — there was a great intake of breath across the land. The combination of cost, risk and distrust of Washington’s ability to deliver had a becalming effect on her rise. Add in that her plan to pay for it by taxing the rich would raise rates above 100 per cent for some — as high as 158 per cent on certain investments — and more sober elements in the party began seriously wondering about her electability.
With just a few months until the start of the primaries, an obvious case of nerves is becoming evident. It was all well and good to pander to the party’s leftist faction and its enthusiasm for Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders when there was still plenty of opportunity for them to fade in the stretch, but time is getting tight and no obvious favourite has emerged to ease them off into the wings. A new poll from Iowa, where the first caucuses take place in February, found Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., has suddenly vaulted ahead of Warren, Sanders and former vice-president Joe Biden into first place, nearly tripling his support and moving up from fourth in September.
At the same time, two high-calibre new candidates are suddenly interested in joining the race. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg might have considerably changed the dynamic of the contest if they’d jumped in earlier. The big question now is whether they waited too long, and whether they can still make any difference. While expanding the pool of experienced moderates who aren’t Biden, their late arrival also sends a clear signal that serious-minded people who would sell their first-born to see the back of Trump aren’t convinced any of the candidates, Biden included, are reliably certain to make it happen. Losing once to Trump may have been be clumsy; blowing the rematch would be evidence of unconscionable incompetence.
Patrick opened his campaign with an appearance in California on the weekend, where it was deemed encouraging that he didn’t get booed by agitated “progressives” upset at Warren and Sanders being treated as millstones. (Less encouraging was the opinion of one Democrat that the only reason he wasn’t, was because people didn’t know who he was). Bloomberg hasn’t officially entered yet, but prepared the path Sunday by appearing before a large congregation of black church-goers to apologize for the “stop and frisk” policy he endorsed as New York mayor, which overwhelmingly targeted blacks and Hispanics.
“I was wrong,” he said, only months after continuing to insist he was right.
It may be that the Republicans’ recent losses in Louisiana, Kentucky and Virginia indicate voters have reached their conclusions about Trump notwithstanding the Democrats’ inability to pick a reasonable challenger. The mix of Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Patrick, Biden and one or two others at least gives them a fighting chance of settling on a candidate who won’t frighten the children. Or they could pick Warren or Sanders and drive themselves over the cliff.