The Establishment(s) Versus the People

There’s an interesting dialogue between Frank Rich and Alex Carp at New York magazine. It starts out looking at panic in the Republican ranks about impeachment but finishes by looking at panic in the Democratic ranks about a possible Warren or Sanders nomination.

After a flashback to the slow collapse of Senate Republican support for Nixon in 1974, Carp says,

In the case of Trump, there’s no reason to expect that Senate Republicans will turn on him incrementally. Mitt Romney and retiring House members like Francis Rooney of Florida aside, they’ll mostly remain loyal — or in the case of Susan Collins and her Vichy ilk, in hiding — until the dam breaks. As to what might break the dam, it’s worth recalling the experience of H.R. Haldeman, the Nixon chief of staff who served 18 months in prison for Watergate crimes. In his 1978 memoir, The Ends of Power, he wrote: “The cover-up collapsed because it was doomed from the start. Morally and legally it was the wrong thing to do — so it should have failed. Tactically, too many people knew too much. Too many foolish risks were taken. Too little judgement was used at every stage to evaluate the potential risk vs. the gains. And when the crunch came, too many people decided to save their own skins at whatever cost to the president or anyone else.” …

…Another factor will be the public impeachment hearings that Republicans have been demanding. The concept of Be Careful for What You Wish For will be ratified once again when those hearings do arrive in as soon as three weeks.

I’m not going to predict that a dam will break and the Senate will convict Trump — more likely, he will not be convicted and will stay in office. But I honestly don’t think it’s impossible that many Republicans will decide to cut Trump loose if the hearings are as bad for Trump as I think they might be.

Then Rich and Carp discussed recent reports of Democratic donors and officials in despair over the contenders — especially Warren and Sanders — for the Dem nomination. See especially this New York Times story,  Anxious Democratic Establishment Asks, ‘Is There Anybody Else?’. Carp again:

For months now — well before the start of debate season — nearly every Democrat I know has repeated some version of the same lament, “I can’t believe it but Trump is going to win again.” …

… What’s most disturbing about the Hail Mary stratagems being tossed out to the press by jittery professional Democrats is the notion that Hillary Clinton might be the “moderate liberal” savior to enter the race if Joe Biden vacates that slot. (Nor has she firmly shut the door on such a scenario.) Just because Clinton has lately become more free-spirited and jokey in her Twitter account does not mean that she’ll be anything other than the cautious, focus-group-tested candidate she’s been throughout her political career, or that she’ll galvanize those parts of the Democratic base (young voters, people of color) that failed to turn out in sufficient numbers last time. In 2016, Trump won in part because of his cynical exploitation of a widespread, and bipartisan, rejection of both the Bush and Clinton Establishments. If there’s a groundswell anywhere beyond Wall Street for their return, it’s a better-kept secret than his tax returns.

“In 2016, Trump won in part because of his cynical exploitation of a widespread, and bipartisan, rejection of both the Bush and Clinton Establishments.” Yes, and I think a lot of what we’re seeing now is a tug of war between the old Establishments and the voters who want anything else but the old Establishments.

The difference, though, is that with the Republicans it appears the Trump anaconda has swallowed the old Establishment wholesale, and there is nothing left of it. Charles Blow wrote,

There is no separation between the Republican Party and Donald Trump. In fact, Trump killed the old Republican Party and now he alone animates the zombie party that lurched forward after its death.

This is Trump’s army. And he is warning his congressional generals, the lawmakers who protect and defend him, that there will be no defections, lest the army turn on them.

At least since August, Trump has been tweeting his stratospheric approval rating among Republicans every few days. That is less about informing than warning. This message is to Republican politicians, those who will hold his fate in their hands as the impeachment process unfolds, to stay in line and toe the line.

And, indeed, that might save him from removal from office. Senate Republicans who were once stalwart members of the Establishment don’t have a party to fall back on. What is left of the old Republican party if Trump is gone? What could be reconstituted from the corpse? It’s really hard to say right now.

The problem is that many years ago the Republican Establishment got hooked on winning elections by feeing red meat to the base. They forgot how to do much else except throw red meat to the base. Big money supporters set up think tanks like Heritage and media outlets like Fox News that did nothing but grow red meat and feed it to the base, keeping them loyal. But eventually the base ate the Establishment, too.

The Democrats, though, are in a different place. Dems have a golden opportunity right now to remake the party into something that will dominate U.S. politics for decades. The question is, do they have the will and the guts to do it?

Biden, Warren, and Sanders remain in the top three in the polls. Harris and Buttigieg are next. Yang is above 5 percent in a couple of polls that might be outliers. These candidates are followed by everybody else in a lump, but there are those in that lump who have a following.

Even with a strong field, lots of people are making lots of declarations about who can’t win. The Establishment wing — and Never Trumpers who want the Dems to nominate a centrist — are quite certain neither Sanders nor Warren can win. Eric Levitz writes,

A specter is haunting “pro-business Democrats” — the specter of change they can’t believe in.

With just over three months until Iowa gets caucusing, Elizabeth Warren is their party’s front-runner. She’s running neck and neck with Joe Biden in the polls — and Biden’s campaign is living hand-to-mouth. The former “senator from MBNA” is losing to a democratic socialist at the fundraising game. And time seems to be depleting Biden’s (always limited) verbal skills even faster than it’s draining his campaign coffers. Meanwhile, the most viable alternative for “Leave Billionaires Alone” Democrats seems to be a college-town mayor with fewer black supporters than Donald Trump. As of this writing, betting markets now put the odds of blue America nominating either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in 2020 at over 50 percent.

Davos Democrats are nonplussed. Each night, consultants of a certain age toss and turn through dreams of George McGovern.

The Establishment is nervously talking about drafting Michael Bloomberg, Deval Patrick, Eric Holder, John Kerry … maybe even Hillary Clinton. But as Levitz says,

If Kamala Harris and Cory Booker aren’t connecting, why would a slapdash Patrick or Holder campaign hit the mark? … The idea that the primary electorate would eagerly support a garden-variety moderate Democrat (who boasts no special connection to Barack Obama) if only they had more than a dozen such candidates to choose from, is manifestly absurd.

The energy, the passion, the tweeting, the small-donor fundraising are on the progressive side and mostly going to Warren and Sanders. The Establishment was no doubt counting on Biden to cruise to an easy win, and he may yet be the nominee. But that looks less certain with every passing day. See Olivia Nuzzi, The Zombie Campaign: Joe Biden is the least formidable front-runner ever. Will it matter?

There is no reason why we must believe that neither Warren nor Sanders can win, btw, except that the establishment says they can’t. And some Sanders supporters are certain Warren can’t win because she’s a woman, but there’s no way to know that until she runs. l do not for a moment believe that Hillary Clinton lost only because she was a woman.

There are even some who question whether the Establishment wants to win if the nominee is Warren or Sanders. Sure, they’d love to replace Trump with Biden or a reasonable facsimile thereof. But Warren or Sanders? Ryan Cooper:

It’s not hard to see what moderates are concerned about, but it’s got nothing to do with beating Trump per se. It is all about advancing their own political agenda, and maintaining their comfortable grip on the Democratic Party’s levers of power, as it always has been. …

… I am very confident that none of the Democratic power brokers currently looking for a moderate dark horse to save them from a Warren or Sanders presidency are honestly concerned about electability. They are looking down the barrel of candidates who would try to sharply raise taxes on the rich, and disrupt the comfortable revolving door between the party and the private sector. If one’s C-suite chair is sufficiently padded, the prospect of President Sanders is just as bad as a second Trump term, if not worse.

Cooper shoots big holes in the deeply held belief that Democrats lose if they move too far left; do read the whole thing. For years it has been Democratic conventional wisdom that they must not run someone who is too far left, because George McGovern. But that election was nearly 50 years ago. A lot has changed in both the electorate and the political landscape. And as Ed Kilgore argues, there were all kinds of reasons why McGovern lost in a landslide to Nixon that had nothing to do with McGovern’s alleged “leftiness.” But McGovern’s loss planted a big, fat paradigm in everyone’s head that has slowly stunted and strangled the Democratic Party ever since. Time to let it go.

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes that the Dem establishment is right to be panicked.

Party elites claim the desire for alternatives isn’t motivated by ideology, but rather sincere worries about the electability of a progressive left nominee. As former Obama adviser David Axelrod told the Times, “There is genuine concern that the horse many have bet on [Biden] may be pulling up lame and the horse who has sprinted out front may not be able to win.” It is fair to question how genuine those electability concerns are, however, with polls, fickle as they can be, showing Sanders and Warren trouncing President Trump in head-to-head matchups.

The truth is that establishment angst is being driven, above all, by power — and moneyed Democrats who can feel their grasp on power in the party slipping. Big donors may be willing to pay more in taxes under a Democratic president, but they seem unwilling to abide the loss of access or influence over the party’s direction that a Sanders or Warren presidency would bring. Indeed, as Nation correspondent Jeet Heer writes, “The real source of anxiety among the donor class is surely not about the viability of Warren or Sanders but rather the precarious position of wealthy contributors in the Democratic coalition.”

See also Paul Waldman, Democrats Need to Get Over Their Impostor Syndrome.