I have no thoughts here beyond the obvious, that the animosity felt by Bernie-boosters is one percent about O’Rourke and 99 percent about tankies suddenly fearing that popular support for socialism is much thinner than they thought.
But watching the far left and the mainstream left spend the next year knifing each other over ideological purity is so cheery a prospect that I offer it to you as an early Christmas gift.
How much of the enthusiasm for Bernie 2016 was due to America’s dispossessed awakening to the glories of massive wealth confiscation and how much of it was due simply to people disliking Hillary Clinton for a dozen different reasons and wanting an alternative? The sudden surge of Betomania! in early-early primary polling is making Sanders fans wonder. And they hate O’Rourke for it.
“I think this week can be understood as a kind of turning point, where — for the first time really — millions of Americans are seeing pieces that look underneath the superficial gloss of projections onto Beto,” said Norman Solomon, who was a delegate for Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention…
It started with David Sirota, a liberal activist and journalist who worked for Sanders many years ago. In a long tweetstorm, Sirota noted that O’Rourke had received more donations from the oil and gas industry than any candidate in the 2018 cycle other than Cruz…
“Reading Karl Marx is cool,” [progressive activist Nomiki Konst] said. “Doing a livestream while you’re doing your laundry is a gimmick.”
Ah, that must be why Bernie caught on among middle America in the primaries two years ago. It’s because Democrats in Wisconsin and Michigan agreed that “reading Karl Marx is cool.” Well, either that or they thought Hillary was lame and checked the box next to the Not Hillary candidate, just like many voters did in the general election:
What it shows is that Bernie's '16 coalition was really formed from 2 (overlapping) groups: The Left on the one hand, and less ideological/more personality-driven young voters on the other hand. Bernie's won't/shouldn't lose The Left to Beto but the millennials may be a problem.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) December 23, 2018
Bernie has many dedicated supporters. But most of his 2016 was as a placeholder for myriad discontents with Hillary Clinton. Trying to hold on to that support will be like carrying oatmeal in your hands over long distances and probably less dignified.
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) December 24, 2018
Sanders is polling a distant second to Joe Biden in most primary polls taken over the last few weeks but lefties aren’t worried about Biden just yet. He has baggage and he’s stuck in the neoliberal lane of the primary. If push comes to shove and he and Bernie end up in a two-man race, Sanders fans think the alleged great silent socialist majority within the Democratic Party will carry Bernie to victory. O’Rourke is more challenging. He’s already third in primary polling, creeping up on Sanders, and actually led Sanders in a poll of MoveOn’s left-wing membership. He has comparatively little baggage and isn’t clearly defined ideologically; unlike Biden, he already proved vividly in the Texas Senate race that he can generate Bernie-style grassroots enthusiasm and convert it into a formidable fundraising apparatus. He ran as an unapologetic liberal against Cruz too, burnishing his ideological cred. And as NBC notes in the story excerpted above, he appeals to Bernie’s core constituency, young Democrats.
As such, O’Rourke is a double threat to Bernie. Because he refused to run to the center in Texas, he might have enough of a lefty patina to gobble up some of Sanders’s ideological support. That’s why progressives are scrambling to spread the word that O’Rourke is actually a gooey centrist, if not some sort of “conservative” Democrat. But he could also eat into the gassier part of Bernie’s 2016 coalition, the people who aren’t socialist ideologues but jumped aboard the Sanders bandwagon because of the candidate’s charisma and the appeal of joining a “movement.” O’Rourke, the most Obama-esque potential candidate, is better positioned than anyone else to replicate that dynamic this year. Even if he doesn’t win the nomination, he could deliver a heavy blow to Berniebros by outpolling their anointed avatar, suggesting that the party’s alleged leftward drift two years ago was more a matter of Bernie’s personal appeal than some long-awaited tectonic shift among the electorate towards socialism. Sanders fans have spent two years claiming that “Bernie would’ve won” the general election against Trump, such is the supposedly irresistible electoral power of far-left economic populism. What if it turns out Bernie can’t even beat Obama 2.0?
More from Peter Hamby on the Beto threat:
The point here is that Sanders, or his supporters, do not get to have a monopoly on what it means to be a progressive in 2020. That term had its own logic in 2016, defined against the backdrop of the fading Obama administration and a head-to-head rivalry with Clinton and her Goldman Sachs paychecks. Today, Trump is president, the world is different, and candidates who run headlong into campaigns fighting the last war always lose.
The coming Democratic primary will present a different set of issues and a fresh bumper crop of candidates, young and old, black and white, male and female, woke and not woke. Other prominent Democrats running for president are down-the-line progressives on health care, money in politics, guns, and climate change. And you could credibly argue that the majority of them are more in tune with the Trump-era cultural debates that Sanders has shown little regard for over the years, especially surrounding immigration. If you inhabit the American left today, you suddenly have choices. In 2016, you only had one.
Bernie fans want “progressive” to mean “full-spectrum socialist.” O’Rourke — or Biden, or maybe even Elizabeth Warren — want it to mean something left of center but a bit short of that. O’Rourke’s getting knifed right now only because he’s the most immediate threat per the polling to cannibalize Sanders’s vote, but if he decides not to run and Warren begins to pick up some momentum (as unlikely as that appears at the moment), she may be treated more harshly by them than Beto. That’s counterintuitive since she’s more of an economic populist than O’Rourke is but it may be that Berniebros have concluded that only Bernie can be trusted to see the revolution safely to its successful conclusion, that victory depends on accepting no imitations in their choice of candidates. Warren will be treated as an imitation if it comes to that.
Exit question: Wasn’t it just five days ago that O’Rourke was being touted as a major threat to the other guy in the top three of polling, Joe Biden? Biden’s in a different ideological lane than Bernie is but they both face a risk from Betomania: O’Rourke is probably progressive enough for most left-wing voters but also mainstream and charismatic enough to woo away some of the Obama fans (and staffers) whom Biden’s hoping will hop abroad his campaign. I think the threat from O’Rourke is overblown, but by definition a guy who can challenge the frontrunners in multiple lanes is dangerous.