USA

The Democrats Are in Trouble

I’ve been enthusiastic about Mike Bloomberg’s race for president from its inception, partly on the theory that he was best positioned to rescue and represent the Democratic Party’s moderate wing. After Wednesday night’s debate debacle in Las Vegas, I’m starting to fear his candidacy might inadvertently destroy that wing — while wrecking the party’s chances in November.

It was a debacle in three parts.

The first part was Bloomberg’s performance, the only virtue of which was its real-time reminder of all the things money can’t buy. Everything about it was bad.

Bloomberg was ill-advised to go onstage. He was ill-prepared to be on it. He showed ill grace toward the people with whom he had signed nondisclosure agreements. He showed ill will toward Bernie Sanders for the sin of owning homes whose aggregate value probably doesn’t exceed that of a maid’s room in a Bloomberg mansion. His suggestion that Sanders’s political program amounted to communism turned critique into parody. His apologies for stop-and-frisk made him seem like he was running away from his record, not on it.

Bloomberg will now try to recover with another huge ad spend, and hopefully a better debate performance in South Carolina next week. But he will do so having lost the aura of formidability that, until Wednesday, had been his chief selling point. He entered the fray looking big but now seems all too small. The “Little Mike” moniker that Donald Trump has given him will stick.

The second part is the Bloomberg effect on Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, his fellow moderates in the field. Instead of bolstering them, he is competing with them. Instead of blowing wind in their sails, he’s piling dead weight on their decks.

The moderates didn’t help themselves with intramural squabbles about Klobuchar forgetting the name of Mexico’s president (though I found myself wishing the senator could have explained to Mayor Pete that she had merely experienced a senior moment — something that will happen to him, too, when he finally grows up).

Nor did their own attacks on Bloomberg do them much good, beyond lending an assist to Elizabeth Warren’s surgical act of political evisceration. The Democratic contest is essentially one between two camps — the camp of infighters known as moderates, and the camp of out-fighters known as progressives. Wednesday’s debate served as another reminder of why the moderates aren’t winning.

Which brings me to the third part of the debacle: Wednesday’s debate left Sanders unscathed. Nothing and nobody touched him. The Democratic Party’s riskiest bet is now its likeliest.

I say this as someone who wrote, a little earlier than most, that Sanders had the best chance of winning the nomination, and that he has just as serious a shot at winning the presidency as Donald Trump did four years earlier.

But that shouldn’t obscure the reality that Trump’s victory was an electoral fluke against an overconfident opponent who didn’t have the many advantages of presidential incumbency. And it mustn’t diminish the fact that Sanders’s candidacy would represent a large bet — titanic, one might say — on the willingness of the American public to embrace drastic economic and social change in an era of relative peace and prosperity.

So why would Democrats want to take that chance?

Maybe it’s because they have overlearned the lessons of the 2016 election: that nominating the centrist and responsible candidate served them poorly. Or maybe it’s because they’ve reasoned that “electability,” being an insufficient requirement for the nomination, is an unnecessary one as well. Or maybe they feel that, when their hearts scream Yes, it’s best to ignore the brain’s screams of No.

Alternatively — a darker thought — maybe Democrats aren’t being entirely honest with themselves when they claim their first priority is to end Trump’s presidency as soon as possible. There’s a certain self-righteous pleasure in hating Trump, as well as an entire cottage industry devoted to indulging that hatred, which would mostly vanish the moment he left office.

What’s more, the far-left that Sanders represents has always been at least as interested in wielding ideological power within the institutions that matter most to it — academia, journalism, labor unions, the Democratic Party — than it has been in wielding political power beyond those institutions. If Sanders were to win the nomination and lose the election, many of his supporters might call the result a wash, even a modest victory. The struggle always continues.

For the rest of us — that is, those of us who want Trump and Trumpism defeated and replaced by something considerably and sustainably better — the prospect of a Sanders candidacy is doubly depressing. He is the candidate Trump most wants to run against. And he would be the president least likely to govern well.

This week, as Mike Bloomberg nearly achieved onstage spontaneous combustion, that prospect came appreciably nearer. To call this bad for the Democrats is an understatement. It’s a fiasco-in-the-making for the country, too.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].