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Democrats Are Learning The Wrong Lesson From 2016 GOP Primary


Heading out of the Nevada primary last week, the Democratic Party establishment was in a bit of a panic. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had gotten the most votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. The establishment’s initial pick for the nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden, had been struggling for months on the campaign trail, sometimes seeming to be confused about who and where he was.

Megabillionaire Mike Bloomberg, who had entered the fray to save the party from Sanders and Biden, revealed himself to be a teensie tiny statue with clay feet after a humiliating debate performance. And the field remained very crowded, with most of the half-dozen or so non-Sanders candidates dividing up the very-liberal-but-not-socialist portion of the pie.

If the establishment really wanted to defeat Sanders, they had to figure out something big and figure it out quickly. It wasn’t that he would go to the convention with the most delegates, necessarily. But if he marched in there with a strong plurality, it would be difficult to wrest the nomination from him.

The establishment did their best. Biden had always been slated to win the South Carolina primary on Saturday, but he won by even a larger margin than many expected. He won 48 percent of the vote, compared to only 20 percent for Sanders. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who placed third, dropped out that night.

Young former mayor Pete Buttigieg — who had respectable showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, a sizable following, and plenty of money — dropped out on Sunday. And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who had been building support and was headed into a home state primary, dropped out on Monday.

The pundits tended to think that this was a great sign for the Democratic Party establishment:

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, a man whose analytical skills do not include understanding where babies come from, wrote the paper’s analysis, “Moderate Democrats are doing what Republicans refused to do in 2016: Getting out of the way.” Incidentally, “moderate” is the media’s preferred term for the collection of candidates whose views are far to the left of the average American but who are nevertheless not Bernie Sanders.

It’s absolutely true that the Democratic establishment figured out that a smaller field would help them get their preferred candidate. Who knows what sorcery and secret deals were made to get two viable candidates to leave the field prematurely.

But perhaps it’s worth noting the minor detail that Republicans won the 2016 general election by not doing what these pundits suggest should have been done that year. Not only did they win a presidency that experts had predicted might not be won by a Republican for many years to come, they did not face the catastrophic House and Senate outcomes that the experts predicted would accompany a Donald Trump candidacy.

The failure to stop Trump from winning the Republican nomination at the very least contributed to the fact that Republican voters got two Supreme Court Justices, 191 other federal judges, tax cuts, tax reform, departure from the administrative state-emboldening Paris Climate Accord, departure from the Iran nuclear deal, an unprecedented rollback of federal regulations, and a more restrained foreign policy.

By being unable to stop a Trump candidacy, the Republican Party managed to tackle some very difficult divides between its establishment and the voters who enabled their power, including on policies that seemed to exclusively benefit corporations and the wealthy, immigration, trade deals, the U.S. relationship with China, regular entry into wars, failure to end wars, and whether to cower in the face of unfair media attacks. The result is a party that is more unified than it’s been in a while. It didn’t just survive the 2018 midterms, it gained Senate seats even as it experienced the expected House losses. The party even has majority approval for the first time since 2005.

Why would the lesson for Democrats be that they must stop this type of possibility?

It is absolutely true that Sanders is an outsider the establishment resents, just like the establishment opposed Trump. And it’s true that the D.C. establishment in both parties would prefer to hold power in a minority situation than to win elections.

Sanders is a threat to that establishment. He really does have a different foreign policy than Biden about interventionist wars.

He disagrees with the establishment’s trade deals with China, and has for many years:

And he certainly has less cozy ties to the corporate class than many of the establishment.

He represents a sizable contingent in the party. Yes, Democrats might be able to help Biden live to fight another day, until he once again reveals his apparent senility to voters. But in so doing, they might be killing their one candidate with energy and excitement in an effort to nominate someone like Biden.

If one didn’t know better, this idea that the Democrats need to learn from Republicans’ election-winning and party-unifying “mistake” sounds like they are following a playbook to not only lose the election but keep their nice little sinecures and perches at the networks, think tanks, newspapers, and other establishment positions.