So 2019 was pretty terrible. And yet we all know that 2020 could easily be worse.
Donald Trump could win. We all know that. It’s not hard to imagine at all. If you’re a liberal and you didn’t have to entertain Trumpy Uncle Joe for Christmas but instead enjoyed the relief of being surrounded by a like-minded group who shared outrage at Trump outing the whistleblower and sarcastically marveled at how you had to flush the toilet only once—yes, even then, you spent part of the last few days in the pits of despair.
“I’m convinced he’ll win, by hook or by crook.”
“I love Elizabeth, but I just worry they’ll destroy her.”
“OK, I’m making my peace with Biden, but he worries me too.”
Yep. Yep. And yep.
Trump could win because he’ll run the most dishonest campaign in the history of the country. There is no checking conscience, no superego whatsoever, in Trump himself; among his supporters, who think it’s either Trump or cultural surrender; or among elected Republicans, with a tiny number of essentially meaningless exceptions. And then there’s Fox News, which will devolve into full-on Big Brotherism by October.
But before we even get to all that, we must contemplate the possibility that the Democrats will tear each other apart during the upcoming primary season.
I go through scenarios in my mind, and almost all of them carry a high risk of intraparty strife. Consider these three:
1. Pete Buttigieg wins Iowa, Elizabeth Warren wins New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders wins Nevada, and Joe Biden wins South Carolina. Entirely plausible scenario. Then it moves from there to Super Tuesday, but the storyline will be about a totally unsettled, up-in-the-air race. It will drag into April, May, June.
2. Biden performs respectably in the first two states and then wins Nevada and South Carolina. Also entirely plausible. In that case, he’s probably cruising toward nomination (although he must beat Sanders in California, where it’s a very close race). Right now, he has leads in most polling in all the major later states: Michigan on March 10, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio on March 17, Wisconsin April 7, New York and Pennsylvania on April 28. So he’ll probably win those states, but Sanders isn’t going anywhere (he’ll have the money to stay in and will do so), and neither are his people. And this sets up a kind of repeat of 2016, when Sanders had no real mathematical shot at overtaking the frontrunner, but stayed in until the convention and hurt the party’s nominee.
3. Sanders wins all four of the first contests. Yes, this is plausible, too. This will put the party people, both big fish and little fish, who believe he’s too left-wing to win and who don’t want the Democratic nomination to go to someone who won’t call himself a Democrat, in absolute freak-out mode. Then they’ll start attacking him in ways that will hurt him if he should be the nominee. But more likely they’ll just do whatever they need to do to make sure he isn’t the nominee, and the recriminations will be hideous to behold.
Those are surface summaries. But just imagine the days and weeks of March and April if any of these scenarios takes hold. Imagine the attacks. Imagine the cable-news fights. Imagine Twitter. Imagine how bitter and brittle it’s all going to be. And then imagine Trump, sitting off to the side gloating, acquitted by the Senate, holding his rallies, preparing his voters to refuse to accept a result in which he is not the victor.
And, of course, this could all start before anybody caucuses or votes at all (Iowa is Feb. 3, New Hampshire Feb. 11). I’m especially interested to see if anyone attacks Sanders. He’s been gliding along under a protective cloud of pixie-dust since 2015. No one has ever attacked him for anything. Oh, Hillary did a little bit, on his opposition to gun manufacturers’ legal culpability for mass shootings, but she didn’t put much elbow grease into it.
Sanders has always been in this special position for two reasons: One, no one has taken really seriously the idea that he’d win; and two, no other candidate has wanted to offend his easily offended legions so as not to alienate them. But if people start thinking that he can win, someone—I’d wager not Biden but maybe Buttigieg, or maybe even Amy Klobuchar—is going to start having at him. We’ve never seen him truly on the defensive. The next debate, to be held in Des Moines, is scheduled for Jan. 14. There may be only five or six people on the stage, which means everyone can get their digs in.
Is there any way to avoid these messes? It will depend on the restraint of the candidates and their campaigns. A dicey proposition. But is it too much to ask, given the stakes here, that one of them step forward and take the lead in committing to some sort of concordat by which they all agree not to cross certain lines in their sparring—for example, not to use lines of attack that would obviously help Trump in a general election? Yes, it can be fuzzy trying to figure out exactly where those lines are. But the voters will render their verdict on that.
Or could Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, as the party’s living ex-presidents, issue some joint statement laying out a few broad principles the candidates should adhere to as the primaries heat up? That would be without precedent. But the stakes are without precedent. The Democrats need desperately to avoid repeating 2016. They risk doing even worse. They owe it to us to behave more responsibly this time.