Bernie Sanders has a long way to go yet before he locks up the Democratic nomination. He fell short of expectations in both Iowa and New Hampshire, winning both by the thinnest of margins. (And Pete Buttigieg may yet emerge with more delegates from those first two contests.) His victory in Nevada was a knockout, but the South Carolina and Super Tuesday contests could still revive Joe Biden’s fortunes or show that Elizabeth Warren didn’t really abort Bloomberg’s campaign by humiliating him in last week’s debate. Squint and you can still just about see a way for somebody else to win the nomination and take on Trump in November, maybe after a contested convention where enough moderates pool their delegates to deny Bernie the prize.
But at this point the Democratic establishment would be better off letting Bernie win. Then one of the two things will happen. Trump might beat Bernie. Then again, Trump might beat anyone the Democrats nominate — his rising approval ratings and the strength of the economy suggest Trump has reasonably good prospects of re-election no matter what the Democrats do. So nominate Sanders, and let his faction take a fall for losing.
The establishment can live with the consequences of a second Trump term. The clock is ticking on economic expansion. The odds of a recession in the next four years are very good. Trump’s antics are tolerated so long as times are good, but what happens when times are tough?
Regardless of whether a recession occurs by then, in 2022 Democrats will be better off in the midterms with Trump in office than with a member of their own party in his place. Midterms tend to be reactions against the president’s party, and six-year midterms tend to be especially bad for them. Democrats’ chances of winning the Senate and holding the House would be solid (assuming neither chamber changes hands sooner). This would set Democrats up for 2024 with control of both the House and the Senate, and by that point it will have been 36 years since any party held the White House for more than two consecutive terms. If an establishment Democrat can win the nomination that year, he or she should be the favorite in November — especially given what the conventional wisdom expects of a second Trump term. Few presidents have second terms happier than their first, even when they leave office with high approval ratings. Trump’s detractors expect him to be all the more polarizing and prone to scandal once he doesn’t have re-election to worry about. They could be wrong, but if they truly believe their own premises, they should be confident.
There are the courts to worry about, of course, but suppose four more years of Trump really does lead to what Democrats say they fear most, the end of Roe v. Wade. At that point, abortion law goes back to the states, where Democrats have lately been energized to enshrine abortion rights even in places like Virginia, while Republicans have found their own coalition split over restrictions in places like Alabama. If that pattern plays out nationally, a Democrat-controlled Congress might re-establish the Roe regime by legislation and expect to win politically. Here again, the question is whether establishment Democrats believe their own premises: if abortion rights are popular, you should expect to win elections by supporting them.
A Sanders defeat come November is a defeat for the left, and a Trump victory followed by Republican overreach — which is what the center-left predicts with night absolute certainty — would soon set the stage for defeat of the right. And all of this follows exactly what the center-left’s self-understanding is meant to be predicated upon: the belief that extreme views can’t win (Sanders) or will fail when turned into policy (Trump). So what’s the Democratic establishment so afraid of?
Perhaps the answer lies in the second scenario that could emerge if Democrats nominate Sanders: he might actually win. And then where would the Democratic establishment be? The answer, however, as Trump’s experience with the Republican establishment shows, is that the Democratic establishment will probably be right there in the heart of the Sanders White House. Certainly the Democratic establishment will still be in Congress, where, as Amy Klobuchar tirelessly points out, Sanders’s more radical notions are unpopular even among his own caucus. The most probable policy outcomes to arise from President Sanders plus a Pelosi-led House plus a narrowly Republican Senate will be center-left outcomes, with hard left tendencies more in evidence in identity politics (where the Democratic establishment is closely aligned with Sanders, and even many establishment Republicans are eager to get onboard) than in economics (where the establishment Democrats and Republicans alike oppose Sanders).
A Sanders presidency might also defang the nationalist and populist right as a threat to establishment Democrats, by encouraging the GOP to redefine itself once more as the anti-socialist, professional-class party — the party of Mitt Romney, not Donald Trump. Establishment Democrats have a long record of success against such Republicans, for the simple reason that establishment Democrats offer much the same in terms of business-friendly policy, but always outbid the business-wing of the GOP in offering government services and more relaxed social policies to dull the pain of those Americans who are not ‘job creators’. Business liberalism, welfarist liberalism, and social liberalism are natural complements, which is why America only gets culturally more liberal even under pro-business conservative Republicans like Ronald Reagan. The trick, for the Democratic establishment, is to keep its own pro-business and welfarist commitments balanced. Bernie Sanders is unpalatable because he upsets that balance.
But he can only upset it for a short time, whether he wins or loses against Donald Trump in November, for the reasons outlined above. By contrast, if the Democratic establishment cheats Sanders of the nomination, or even if it denies him the nomination in a fair but apparently conniving way through convention politics, the backlash from the left will be truly disruptive for years to come. Should an establishment candidate go on to lose to Trump in November, the establishment will be doubly discredited in the eyes of the left-wing activist base of the party, which includes most of the party’s youth contingent. And if an establishment candidate should beat Trump in November, then any recession that happens in the next four years will be blamed on establishment Democrats, even without a recession, the 2022 midterms become more difficult for Democrats. Both the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and the populist wing of the GOP may be more dangerous to the establishment out of power than in office — certainly they would be less fettered by responsibility. It’s always easier to criticize than to govern.
Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg are all awful candidates, none of whom can conceivably assuage the fury of the pro-Sanders left if they beat him. They might still win the presidency, but they would come into office with a left-opposition, as well as a Republican opposition on the right. That left opposition would be poised to take advantage of all the Democratic establishment missteps, and in a post-Trump policy environment, the hazards would be numerous indeed. Establishment Democrats ought to be more afraid of what happens if their party doesn’t nominate Sanders than what happens if it does.
Except for one thing: what if Sanders, or Trump, is actually right? What if their policies actually work, and their policies (in either form — or a mix of both) are what the American public actually want? In that case, the Democratic establishment’s problem with Bernie Sanders is really a problem with democracy, and a problem with practical reality itself. This is the abyss into which the Republican establishment has been staring since Trump’s election, and even the infiltration of so many establishment figures into the administration cannot fill that void. Because on this account, the establishment’s own worthlessness in the eyes of the public is the cause of its downfall, not the election or a Trump or a Sanders. The center-left, like the center-right, refuses to entertain this possibility consciously, but its transparent horror at the possibility of a Sanders administration reveals the truth. And the truth is that the establishment knows it deserves to fall.