Which One of These Candidates Can Beat Trump?
The president's grip on the office is unclear, too, making America's political future uncertain
On a Tuesday night in New Hampshire in February, Peter Buttigieg, the 38-year-old, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, congratulated his principal rival on “a strong showing.” Buttigieg had essentially just finished second in a consecutive contest, edged out again by a Vermont socialist, Bernie Sanders, more than twice his age and quadruply as popular among Buttigieg’s own age demographic.
Buttigieg shrewdly pretended it wasn’t so. “I admired Senator Sanders when I was a high school [student], I respect him greatly to this day,” the neoliberal valiance remarked, all but explicitly saying that unlike his septuagenarian foe, he’d put childish things away, as he attempted to meme himself into the presidency, results be damned. Because of the Democrats’ proportional, not winner-take-all voting system, the Left is poised to embark upon a brutal slog of a primary.
Add in the mysterious superdelegate system, and Buttigieg is not over-imaginative to think he’s holding three of a kind: raw personal and campaign intelligence; the young, gay angle; and establishment enthusiasm. He has serious limitations: a paucity of support among African Americans, the party’s foundation, and limp national numbers. But chaos is his ace in the hole, which is why Buttigieg often speaks as if he’s about to preside over a neoliberal coup d’etat. Maybe he is.
The Democratic Party, and America, is in the primaveral months of a new decade. There is a spooky lack of clarity, a canvas seemingly wide open for painting. By New Year’s, America will have either ratified or rejected Trumpist nationalism, and some days, both sides seem almost trying to lose. Pick your poison: the Democrats’ labyrinth election system and zealous proceduralism, or the administration’s policy nihilism.
If America elects Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg, or Amy Klobuchar, it will have shown an electorate thirsty for technocratic restoration. If it taps Bernie Sanders, expect a run on the bookstores: volumes on Karl Marx and treatises on “accelerationism” will be in high demand—and if you believe GOP talking points, so too will most other consumer goods. As Congressman Matt Gaetz puts it, get ready for “the Venezuela wing” of the Democratic Party.
If Elizabeth Warren sneaks in there, it will have shown that the time for a woman has come, and not just because, unlike in 2016, the woman in question said that the time for a woman had come. And if Joe Biden celebrates his 80th birthday in the White House, America will have shown itself ready for somebody, anybody not named Donald Trump.
Will the Trump era hold, cohere, and move forward into the new decade? With the president now acquitted of high crimes and misdemeanors, it’s a prospect that seems to have grown more likely by the week, despite the principal’s unusual behavior, underwhelming delivery on key items (the wall?), and national exhaustion.
In what would make for painful viewing, a Trump rout over a somnolent Joe Biden no longer sounds implausible. Unlike a year ago, the Amtrak veteran now seems to be barreling towards the last station of his career, a stinging, brutal third presidential defeat. Those in personal contact with the president have long assured me the White House prefers to face the former vice president, an idea that seemed fanciful in the summer, if the president’s hijinks in Ukraine were any indication.
But the mother of all negative indicators, former House speaker Paul Ryan, recently gave the flagging pol the kiss of death, saying his old debate foe from 2012 would be strongest against Trump. Biden’s firewall in the Democratic South is fearsome and could prolong the agony, but the left seems poised to, eventually, crib a line from Donald Trump: “You’re fired.”
A haze of unease dominates the zeitgeist in Washington and on the trail. Sanders is winning, but not galloping to the nomination. Turnout appears uneven, not electric. For the Right, what if the “Clinton corruption” playbook from 2016 can’t be recycled, at least effectively? And if it were not a Trumpian triumph, what exactly is “the Left” anymore, anyway, and how would it govern?
If you believe the pages of some right-wing rags, “the Left,” historically dedicated to ameliorating inequality, is the country’s rich and beautiful people: Big Tech, Wall Street, and Hollywood. That definition is incomplete and elides the prospect of a major, serious socialist lurch. The rhetoric of the Right in America has taken on an acidic tone, I submit, not just because of the style of its standard-bearer, but because it no longer fully understands its foe. A fear and loathing permeates the president’s base.
As a former senior administration official told me in his offices recently when asked about the president’s re-election chances: “I simply do not know.”
One tension, and the biggest wild card, is generational. The complaints of the young—about housing, about healthcare, about education, about war, about, yes, gender fluidity—seem a world away from the crystallizing crises of the Baby Boomer generation that now serves as some, not all, of Trump’s rump.
Writing in First Things, Peter Thiel argues, paraphrasing Ross Douthat, that we are in a “boomer culture loop.” Thiel, who has made a career betting big money on young people, says: “Now the old family structure has been smashed, religion is in decline, patriotism is passé, and the cultural marketplace is fragmented. Because there is no longer a healthy dominant culture, would-be rebels have nothing to resist. So they playact the battles of a previous age.”
Are Wall Street—which has priced in Trump’s victory—and the White House also miscalculating? Is America in 2020 about to witness an unexpected, revolutionary changing of the guard? Millennials and Gen Z, or the zoomers, are projected to be over a third of the electorate in 2020, according to Pew Research. What if the overclass is missing the trend?
Bernie Sanders, the rapturous favorite of young people, is not George McGovern in 1972 or Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, but, as Ross Douthat and others have posited, closer to Ronald Reagan in 1980. An ancien regime, in this rendering, is ripe for obliteration.
The collapse of America’s international prestige (the Iraq war and its cousins), internal stability (the financial crisis), and political guardrails (the ascension of Trump) has quietly radicalized young people, the furthest, most consistently left-wing generation in the country’s history, if you believe polling, which many on the Right, unwisely, do not.
Were Sanders to succeed, gone will be the preoccupation with oil shocks, inflation, and the mullahs of Tehran, and in will be concerns around family formation (a concern which will find rightist allies), heinous inequality, a defeated empire (an issue set which will find restrainer allies), and environmental apocalypse. This is the issue set of the Millennial generation and its cousins. The gas lines of 1979 are the Great Lakes Borrowing Company of 2020. The hostages in Tehran are the horrors America itself is poised to visit on Tehran. Stagflation is irrelevant if no one is making any money at all.
The fourth plank of the Boomer issue set, urban crime, as the cities again teem with the upwardly mobile, may have a singular shelf life. There are early signs of a monstrous comeback for midtown mania. It is, sadly, unmasked on the streets of San Francisco.
For the Trump re-election, fighting Biden versus fighting Bernie would be two radically different projects. The team is all but officially helmed by Trump’s most senior counselor, son-in-law Jared Kushner. If you know The Godfather, he’s the family’s Tom Hagen, unrelated by blood and untested in bloodsport. The time has come for him to prove himself a wartime consigliere.
Kushner’s man, campaign manager Brad Parscale, frequently points to a strategy: consolidate the “Blue Wall”—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—as a working class holdout for the Right, stretch the map into America’s sunshine, Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, and court African Americans.
Biden’s strategy is simple, and he says it all the time. Clinton lost four years ago because of a sneak attack. The Dems know Republicans are coming for Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania this time—states not previously won since 1988—and they’ll be prepared. They’ll peel back the tens of thousands, a relatively small number in electoral terms, that defected. And they’ll do so with middle class Joe, with union Joe, with a white figure beloved by African Americans in a manner not seen since Bill Clinton. Get a drink with Democratic operatives—or Republican ones—and they’ll note that many of the key Republican voters in the Blue Wall in 2016 are dead.
Studies of 2016 consistently show that some skeptical African Americans stayed home in 2016; they also thought the election was in the bag. Parscale and Kushner have their work cut out for them, as some studies find that as many as eight in 10 black Americans think the president is a racist. Biden’s strategy for success in the general is now his strategy for survival in the primary, as it heads south and west: union power, raw machine politics, and black enthusiasm. Former Senate leader Harry Reid, a quiet Biden enthusiast, still runs Nevada. Eric Garcetti, the powerful mayor of Los Angeles, is a johnny-come-lately to camp Biden. He can’t be fully discounted, especially in the face of a panic attack from the Democratic establishment over Sanders. Sanders’ early success is overt but overcomeable.
Sanders would be a different animal. He’s the high-risk, high-reward play for the Left. In one rendering, he regales the Rust Belt with tales of Trump’s unkept promises, overcomes suburban anxieties with a youthful show of force, and delivers a plucky performance with African Americans. That goes doubly for the general. Trump is confident, but anxious about Sanders. I’m told directly that the president has fears over how to address Sanders’ promises to wipe out student loan debt; his instinct is to fight fire with fire, promising the same and more. It could work, or Sanders could point out the cognitive dissonance between Trump and his own administration. For every nice word about European healthcare, Americans have gotten a formal legislative proposal for Ryancare. For every salvo toward negotiation with Iran, we’ve witnessed sanctions on the regime’s “space program.” For every Trump campaign promise not to cut the safety net, America has borne witness to budget proposals that say the opposite.
Or Sanders gets waxed. The economy is simply too good, the demographics, crudely, too Boomer, and the “woke” cultural aspects of Sanders’ repeat bid simply too tailor-made for too narrow a constituency. There would be wacky, unexpected X-factors. A Trump campaign official recently boasted to me that they could carry New Mexico, not in Republican sights since the days of George W. Bush, uniquely popular with Hispanics. “New Mexico just proposed free college” for residents, the official told me. Ordinarily New Mexico is awash in fracking wealth, sitting on “a sea of money.” Bernie Sanders? He’s proposed a federal ban on fracking.
The leading female candidates, to say nothing of the valiant but doomed effort by Tulsi Gabbard, have an opening. But likely for vice president. The hundred-year hope of a female executive in the White House will likely, though not certainly, have to wait at least another four-year cycle. Warren staying in the race particularly harms Sanders and makes the possibility of a brokered convention less of a pipe dream and the parlance of political reporters than it usually is. A consensus figure could reward her. Sanders-Klobuchar seems plausible: putting the moderate Minnesotan on the ticket would be a double-barreled shotgun in the fight to retake the Midwest.
But maybe the answer to a brash billionaire is another brash billionaire. Michael Bloomberg and his “death star,” as some are calling it, referring to his titanic fundraising and endorsement apparatus, can’t be ruled out. The mayor of Trump’s town, Washington, D.C., and his bete noire, San Francisco, have both endorsed Bloomberg, as have a slew of local officials he’s befriended and bestowed money upon over the years in political advocacy. In some ways, he’s like Trump: a New York rockstar unafraid to offend. Recently resurfaced comments about working with Russia sound just like Trump, much to establishment howls and shrieks. Bloomberg seems to know the topography: America is an oligarchy, and let’s stop lying about it.
A New York Times profile in 2009 from his days as New York mayor captures the unsentimental, if uncritical, but explosively decisive Bloomberg.
Over dinner, Bloomberg asks for the best bottle of red wine in the house. The restaurant manager seeks to elaborate on the wine and the billionaire stops him cold.
“Is this your best bottle?” Bloomberg asked. The restaurateur says yes. “OK, then, pour it.”
America, too, may be tired of picking wines.