As baseball great and philosopher Yogi Berra once opined, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Anyone who reads this column knows how the many twists and turns in American politics make it unpredictable. For more than two-and-a-half years, we’ve had the most mercurial and unpredictable Oval Office occupant in our history and at a particularly turbulent period. Remember the 2016 campaign? We are almost used to that.
But the previous week has been bizarre even by the standards of the past few years. We’d have one major development in, let’s say, the Ukraine kerfuffle, and before any decent polls can be conducted—much less analyzed—something else happens, and before the implications of that can be measured and considered, something else happens. And the process continues.
A bird hunter learns to lead the bird, aim the shotgun ahead of the bird—where the bird is expected to be by the time the shot gets there. With this, you have no earthly idea which way the bird will even fly.
The pros and cons of impeachment have and will continue to be debated ad nauseum, but even putting the impeachment part aside, we can’t see where the rest of this is going. Specifically, what impact will all of this have on the Democratic presidential nomination?
In 2015 and 2016, we saw the development of the image of “Crooked Hillary.” Both Bill and Hillary Clinton skirted the edges so often that there was plenty to feed into that narrative, though other elements seem to have been spun out of whole cloth. A child-porn sex ring run by Hillary Clinton supporters out of a Connecticut Avenue pizza joint, otherwise known as “Pizzagate?” I guess you can just make this stuff up.
Before our eyes, we are seeing the development of a new persona: “Crooked Joe,” as in Joe Biden. There are plenty of ways to make the case that Biden shouldn’t be president or even the Democratic nominee. But anyone who has known or watched Biden’s career knows the guy isn’t a crook.
So much of the case for Biden has predicated on a perception of electability—that he, far more certainly than anyone else, can win over swing voters, moderates, independents, and working-class whites in industrial states such as Pennsylvania.
This column previously argued that while we are in an era when so many people hate politics and government and have grown to devalue experience and expertise, Biden’s emphasis should have been on experience and an understanding of world affairs. After the last 40 months or so, experience and knowledge of the world might make a brief comeback. Then toss in electability as a cherry on top. But that didn’t happen.
Meanwhile, since early summer, we have seen signs that Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy was on the rise—to a certain extent at Bernie Sanders’s expense. There is no other candidate operating at the same skill level as her and no campaign as organized as hers. Her rise is causing many establishment Democrats to go into a wholesale panic.
For Biden, with the suggestions of impropriety—legitimate or not—everyone strips a layer of the electability off the veneer of the Biden candidacy. Has it hurt enough to cost him the nomination? We don’t know.
Arguably for some time there have been three plausible trajectories for Biden’s candidacy. The first, the one I thought was most likely, was to hang on and win the Democratic nomination. The second would be that his candidacy gradually fades—death by a thousand cuts—with the nomination going to someone else. The third, and least likely, was that his candidacy simply collapses—that he says or does something; something is done to him; or his candidacy simply implodes.
But key to Nos. 2 and 3 is timing. Does a fade or burnout happen while there is still a center-left, establishment-friendly alternative, or does it happen later down the road, when there are just two or three candidates still viable, like maybe Warren and Sanders?
Right now there are still several highly qualified Democrats in the race that could qualify as center-left and establishment-friendly should Biden fall. Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, and Tim Ryan are in there, while others might add Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke. But is it too late for any of them, and if it isn’t, how much longer is the window open?
The level of uncertainty of where any of this goes is unbelievable. But it is what it is.