Published March 4, 2020
Sweet relief. Super Tuesday was the worst setback for left-wing populism since Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party crashed and burned. But while the voters have handed Joe Biden another chance, it’s important to recognize why they’ve had doubts.
From the start of this election cycle, majorities of Democrats had signaled that their highest priority was beating Trump. Not Medicare for All. Not the Green New Deal. Not a federally guaranteed $15-an-hour job. A March 2019 USA Today/Suffolk poll was typical: By 55 to 35, voters said they preferred a candidate who could beat Trump to one who shared their own policy views.
That overriding goal likely explained Joe Biden’s catapult to the top of the field after his announcement, and his steady dominance throughout 2019.
Then came impeachment. The president’s trial sucked Biden into the vortex as Republicans repeated unfounded allegations about the former vice president’s conduct vis-à-vis Burisma. It was low politics that shouldn’t have succeeded, but, arguably, it did. Also, Biden flubbed it. He could have said, “Look at how desperate Trump is not to face me in November! I never attempted to help Hunter by official acts. But Trump’s official acts in strong-arming an ally to smear me is just one more example of his unfitness for the presidency. If you vote for me, I will never disgrace the office.” Instead, we got weeks of falsehoods about Biden and Ukraine (just what Trump ordered) and only limp responses from Biden himself.
With the front-runner looking suddenly diminished, voters cast their eyes left and right for options — like a quarterback trying to get rid of the ball while beefy linebackers are barreling toward him. Buttigieg won Iowa, Elizabeth Warren got a temporary bump, Klobuchar had a New Hampshire moment (this columnist had kind words for her), and Sanders moved steadily upward. In February, Bloomberg briefly bloomed.
Then the Nevada caucuses delivered their chilling message: Unless all but one of the moderates in the race dropped out, Bernie Sanders was going to be coronated in Milwaukee. Mainstream Democrats felt their blood run cold. It wasn’t so much because Sanders’s policy views repelled them (though they should), but because they quite reasonably believed that their party was sleep-walking into nominating the one Democrat sure to lose to Trump in the general, one who might even endanger control of the House.
Among Never Trump Republicans and former Republicans, the sense of doom combined with sickening dejâ vu. Here again, it seemed, a major American political party would be dragged off the rails by a minority of zealots. A November choice between Trump and Sanders would be like hemlock or cyanide. Unquenchable grievances would characterize both parties, with the vast “exhausted majority” powerless to make its voice heard. That way lies madness.
Enter Representative Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip. Clyburn didn’t just throw his support to Biden, he took him in hand. According to a Washington Post account, Clyburn was frank: You’re a compassionate guy. People like that about you. But they want a candidate with a bit more fight. And your speeches are too meandering. “There’s a reason preachers deliver their sermons in threes,” he said. “You know, ‘The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’”
Biden listened. “I got it,” he said.
And it seems he did. He was crisp and forceful in the February 25 debate, and that, combined with the power of Clyburn’s endorsement, got him a resounding South Carolina victory.
Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who never agreed on much, resolved that withdrawing and backing Biden was the best thing they could do for themselves and for their party. If the ghosts of John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio stiffened their resolve, good.
There were only 60 hours between polls closing in South Carolina and the start of Super Tuesday voting. Yet the moderates in the Democratic Party used that time skillfully. The Biden endorsements flowed one after another, creating a bandwagon effect, and demonstrating that leadership still matters. Bloomberg’s announcement that his resources will be put to use supporting Biden rebuts the cynical interpretation of his candidacy as a vanity project.
Biden has been given the greatest second chance in recent electoral history. He should tattoo the preachers’ rule of three on his hand.
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Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.