The Slatest

The “Establishment” Probably Could Have Made a Regular Democrat the Nominee if It Hadn’t Gotten So Stuck on Biden

A photo of Sanders speaking and raising his finger, superimposed on a background of close-up shots of Lockhart, Matthews, and Carville.
Joe Lockhart, Chris Matthews, James Carville, and Bernie Sanders. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kris Connor/Getty Images for Glamour, Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Raul E. Diego/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, and Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

There was a lot of angst among TV Democrats over the weekend about Bernie Sanders’ win in the Nevada caucuses and a related tweet in which he/his campaign bragged that the “Democratic establishment” won’t be able to stop his movement.

Former Bill Clinton press secretary and CNN analyst Joe Lockhart was particularly incensed:

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who was Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s chief of staff in the 1980s, melted down, comparing Sanders’ Nevada win to Nazi Germany’s successful invasion of France. Former Bill Clinton adviser James Carville also got upset on MSNBC about Nevada voters’ purportedly suicidal choice; on CBS, former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel was skeptical that Sanders can win in November; former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile, a Fox News contributor, was annoyed at what she perceived as the narcissism demonstrated in the “establishment” tweet.

Let’s leave the question of whether Sanders’ “democratic socialism” is or isn’t going to repel swing voters aside for a second. If you sincerely hold the belief that it will, what should you have been doing for the past year to actually prevent the socialist from winning the nomination? Probably finding and supporting a nonsocialist nominee who’s shown themselves ready to run a dynamic general-election presidential campaign, right? Perhaps one like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, or even Elizabeth Warren?

And why aren’t any of those high-profile Dems—who, though they have varyingly progressive platforms, all fall somewhere within the ideological parameters that have defined the party in the past—threatening Sanders at the moment? Why, it’s because of Joe Biden, who has been bleeding support since (belatedly) announcing his candidacy last year but who entered with enough “establishment” backing that he’s still preventing the non-Bernie vote from consolidating.

Biden’s presence kept Harris and Booker from raising enough money to stay in the race and has boxed Klobuchar into the small space from which she will likely shortly announce that she, too, is dropping out. And it isn’t an accident that the only remaining candidates besides Sanders and Biden would then be Warren and Michael Bloomberg, who have nontraditional fundraising models, and Buttigieg, who was able to get attention because he was a long shot with nothing to lose. Everyone else who might have taken the traditional path—a group that could also have plausibly included Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee—was turned away at the gate.

The party’s aging insiders instead looked at the field and decided to get behind the guy who currently reminds them most of the good times they had with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In the process, they ignored the candidates who most resemble 1992 Clinton and 2008 Obama in more germane ways—age, oratorical skill, grassroots following, history of winning votes from important geographic and demographic groups, etc. All those candidates would have changed the party in some way if they attained power, but they all would have changed it into something that Chris Matthews and Joe Lockhart would (or at least should) have recognized. Instead, the old guard made a choice that was as much about familiarity and cronyism as ideology—and now are left, like Biden on the debate stage, with nothing to do but huff and puff about things that happened decades ago as the rest of the party moves on.