The Democratic establishment managed the nearly impossible. In the course of less than two weeks, it cut off Bernie Sanders at the pass and revived Joe Biden.
We don’t live in an age of powerful political parties with commanding figures pulling the strings in backrooms (no smoking allowed). The presidential nominating process, in particular, is as open and democratic as it has ever been.
This makes the coordinated action of the latest interval of the Democratic race even more astonishing. Center-left parties around the Western world have collapsed or been taken over by outsiders, which made it believable that Sanders would do the same here. Instead, the center of the Democratic Party has held.
One reason it was so widely assumed Sanders would take a significant delegate lead on Super Tuesday was that we had a direct analogue — Republicans nominated Donald Trump in 2016 when he jumped out to a lead by winning plurality victories against a fractured field. If Republicans couldn’t unite to blunt Trump, why would Democrats fare any better against Sanders?
Four years ago, Republicans loathed their party establishment and had turned their backs on their immediate past president, George W. Bush. Sanders isn’t plowing in as fertile ground.
As Peter Beinart points out in The Atlantic, Bush and his signature initiative, the Iraq War, weren’t popular with Republicans, whereas Barack Obama and his signature initiative, Obamacare, are popular with Democrats.
This made it possible for Biden to run on restoration rather than revolution and find an audience, especially in South Carolina, where many voters told exit pollsters they wanted a return to Obama policies.
It also meant that, as a general matter, pillars of the party establishment hadn’t been discredited. The biggest moment in Biden’s comeback was the endorsement of a 14-term congressman and member of the congressional leadership named Jim Clyburn.
After Biden’s smashing South Carolina victory, the party fell in line quickly, with candidates exiting and endorsing Biden. It was a collective action of the sort that Republicans couldn’t manage in 2016.
This was in part because there was no one suitable to rally around. Jeb Bush’s association with the two past presidents of his party was a liability because it played into the charge of dynasty. Besides, Bush had the poor early showings of Biden without a reservoir of support among a key base of voters.
It was Ted Cruz who was the only viable alternative to Trump. But no one wanted to come to his aid. He wasn’t a longtime party fixture considered fondly even by his competitors, but an ambitious newcomer who had alienated his colleagues and frightened the establishment.
On top of this, Trump scrambled ideological categories and piqued the curiosity of elements of the GOP old guard. Sanders, in contrast, catalyzed a straight left vs. moderate fight and occasioned the uniform fear and loathing of the Democratic establishment.
Finally, Republicans wanted to throw caution to the wind. The last two candidates identified with the establishment, John McCain and Mitt Romney, had lost, and GOP victories in midterm elections had delivered less than the party’s base had expected. It was a time for risks — because, really, how could things get worse?
The mood of a swath of Democrats is different — extreme nervousness about messing up its opportunity to defeat Trump.
What will be the upshot of the party’s effort to stall Sanders? Party establishments can fail two ways. They can be ineffectual and they can be wrong. Republicans failed to stop Trump, at the same time that fears he couldn’t win the election proved unfounded. Meanwhile, Democrats tilted the playing field toward Hillary Clinton and succeeded only in elevating a historically weak candidate.
This year, the Democratic establishment may yet again thwart Sanders. Yet the party is throwing itself into the arms of a septuagenarian with serious performance issues. We won’t know until November if this is a smashing success, or a grievous mistake born of desperation.