After a month-long panic driven by fears of an unstoppable Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party establishment breathed a sigh of relief last night. Joe Biden scored wins in nine of the 15 contests on Super Tuesday, capping a crucial four-day turnaround in which victory in his “firewall” state of South Carolina was quickly followed by withdrawals by three of his rivals, two of whom immediately endorsed his presidential bid. With the news Wednesday morning that billionaire Mike Bloomberg will quit the race and endorse Biden, it now appears that the man President Trump calls “Sleepy Joe” has a clear path to the Democratic nomination.
Biden’s rapid revival seems to have ended what I described, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, as “The Great Liberal Freakout.” Anyone who watched CNN or MSNBC after the February 3 Iowa caucus could see that Biden’s dismal fourth-place finish in the Hawkeye State had inspired abject despair among the liberal pundits. The prospect that Sanders might win the Democratic nomination on a socialist platform was an omen of doom — guaranteed defeat in November — a scenario that longtime Clinton adviser James Carville called “the end of days.”
Democrats were experiencing a political Murphy’s law, in which everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. The Senate voted to acquit Trump of impeachment charges, Democrats botched the vote count in Iowa, and the only “mainstream” candidate who seemed capable of challenging Sanders’ momentum was Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old homosexual mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Because African American voters are such a crucial demographic for Democrats, and because pundits believed black voters would never support a gay candidate, the chance that Buttigieg could win the nomination was dismissed out of hand. If Biden could not regain the lead, the “Anybody but Bernie” crowd seemed to calculate, the best hope of stopping Sanders was Bloomberg.
An ex-Republican and former three-term mayor of New York City, Bloomberg had entered the campaign too late to be on the ballot in any of the first four states but was spending lavishly on Super Tuesday states. While the Bloomberg alternative was being explored, establishment Democrats experienced another shock in New Hampshire, where Biden placed fifth — zero delegates — behind Sanders, Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. With Sanders leading the polls ahead of the February 22 Nevada caucus, the Democratic apocalypse was clearly at hand, and if the cable-news pundits had been worried after Iowa, they became utterly unhinged after New Hampshire.
But the Great Liberal Freakout had not yet reached rock bottom. That nadir of panic came on February 19, when Bloomberg completely bombed his first debate appearance. Having become the default Plan B for “mainstream” Democrats, Bloomberg blew it so badly in his Las Vegas debate debut that the pundits suddenly found themselves searching for Plan C. Was it possible Klobuchar could contend for the nomination? Did Buttigieg deserve a second look? Or maybe Warren, whose debate attacks had inflicted the most damage on Bloomberg, might be capable of a resurgence? After Sanders scored another victory in Nevada, however, establishment Democrats evidently decided to go back to Plan A.
Key to this desperate last-ditch strategy was the fact that black voters are a majority of Democrats in South Carolina. Four days after the Nevada primary, Rep. James Clyburn — known as the “godfather” of the South Carolina Democratic Party — delivered his endorsement of Biden, making an emotional appeal to unite behind the former vice president. Coming on the heels of a February 25 debate in Charleston, which many observers called Biden’s best performance of the campaign, Clyburn’s endorsement proved to be the turning point. Biden racked up nearly half the vote Saturday in South Carolina, more than doubling Sanders’ total, which immediately brought the capitulation of billionaire Tom Steyer. This was followed Sunday by Buttigieg’s announcement that he would suspend his campaign, and on Monday, both Buttigieg and Klobuchar endorsed Biden.
On Super Tuesday, Biden beat Sanders in more than half the states — including states where Biden didn’t even have a campaign staff and states like Minnesota and Massachusetts that Sanders had been heavily favored to win. Bloomberg ended up with a pitiful handful of delegates, winning only in the American Samoa caucus. Sanders managed to hang on in California, Colorado, Vermont, and Utah, but the writing on the wall was clear enough for Bloomberg, who dropped out and pledged his support for Biden.
What, then, of the dreaded “brokered convention” scenario that pundits have been chattering about ever since Iowa? It’s still a mathematical possibility that Biden will fall short of the majority of delegates needed to win the nomination when Democrats convene in Milwaukee in July. Yet the chances of that outcome now look very small, especially if Elizabeth Warren’s “reassessment” of her campaign leads to her quitting the race. At this point, the next debate (March 15 in Phoenix) is probably going to be a one-on-one matchup between Biden and Sanders. Almost none of the “experts” seem to think Sanders can make a comeback after Biden’s big wins on Tuesday, but (a) the “experts” have been wrong before, and (b) Biden’s notorious penchant for gaffes is starting to look symptomatic of senility.
As George Neumayr writes, Biden’s renaissance should put an end to talk that Sanders was comparable to Trump as a populist phenomenon. And as Jeffrey Lord has observed, by lining up behind Biden, establishment Democrats are probably abandoning whatever genuine hope they had of beating Trump.
We cannot be certain that Biden will actually make it all the way to the nomination, even though it now seems he faces no obstacle between here and Milwaukee. This has been a strange campaign, and who can tell what surprises might pop up before Democrats gather to choose their nominee in July? For now, however, the party’s establishment and their media mouthpieces seem confident they’ve got everything under control. The Great Liberal Freakout appears to be over, at least for the time being. Wasn’t it fun while it lasted?