Politics

The Democratic Donor Class Prefers Day Dreams to Reality

Disney CEO Bob Iger is as responsible as any one person for turning Hollywood into a factory of endless remakes. He oversaw Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars and Marvel Comics franchises while also promoting an endless series of live action adaptions of animated fare like The Lion King and Aladdin. Strangely enough, some people think Iger’s special talents make him presidential material. The Washington Post reports that Oprah Winfrey, herself oft-discussed as White House material, “repeatedly begged” Iger to enter the Democratic presidential primaries.

Winfrey is engaged in wish-casting, a pastime that is becoming very popular among well-heeled Democrats who are unhappy with the way the presidential primaries are going. As both The Washington Post and New York Times reported on Wednesday, discontent has overtaken the centrist establishment of the Democratic Party, including many of its wealthiest donors.

The presidential primaries are not going at all the way these rich and powerful Democrats want. Their preference is for a centrist presidential candidate. In theory, they should be happy because a wide assortment of centrists are running, but so far the only one who has polled well is Joe Biden. While Biden has reliable no-rocking-of-the-boat politics, he’s also a deeply flawed candidate. His main appeal is nostalgia, based on his osmotic connection to Barack Obama. Looked at without Obama-tinted glasses, Biden is a doddering man who has trouble speaking for extending periods with lapsing into embarrassing gaffes, moments of forgetfulness, or flustered annoyance. He’s also short on money, showing no aptitude for the small-donor fundraising that Bernie Sander and Elizabeth Warren have mastered.

Aside from Biden, the only hope for centrists is Pete Buttigieg. But the South Bend, Indiana mayor has his own problems. While he’s doing well in Iowa, where his campaign is spending heavily, the candidate has shown no ability to attract African-American voters. Buttigieg’s main advantages are comparative: he’s much younger and cognitively robust than Biden while polling better than Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, John Delany, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and Joe Sestak (to list only a few of the crowded field of centrists).

Neither Biden nor Buttigieg are horses you’d want to bet the family savings on. As Eric Levitz wrote in New York magazine, “time seems to be depleting Biden’s (always limited) verbal skills even faster than it’s draining his campaign coffers. Meanwhile, the most viable alternative for ‘Leave Billionaires Alone’ Democrats seems to be a college-town mayor with fewer black supporters than Donald Trump.” 

As Biden continues to stumble along and Buttigieg fails to gain traction, the likelihood increases that the race will go to one of the two left candidates, Warren or Sanders. Both are good enough at fundraising to keep them going through a long, arduous and expensive race.

It’s precisely the prospect of a Warren or Sanders nomination that horrifies the centrists. Hence the rise of flights of fancy among the Democratic elite. The Times describes a tony party at the Whitby Hotel in Manhattan, where “influential Democrats” who contributed lavishly to presidential races started pondering the alternatives: “Would Hillary Clinton get in, the contributors wondered, and how about Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor? One person even mused whether Michelle Obama would consider a late entry.” As the Times notes, Bloomberg is “said to be more eager to find a way into the race—and chatter about his potential candidacy has only grown among Democrats who work on Wall Street and are concerned about Ms. Warren’s rise.”

The Whitby Hotel meeting was organized by American Bridge, described in the article as a “progressive group.” The more salient fact, left unstated, is that American Bridge was formed by David Brock, the former right-wing tabloid journalist who became a longtime Clinton family consigliere.

Other names floated about are Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Senator who has a good pedigree as an economic populist but also opposes single payer health insurance (a position that makes him popular in the centrist set). Former Secretary of State John Kerry is also mentioned, along with former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Some of these are figures of real accomplishment—but they are all as implausible as Bob Iger. After all, 2020 will be an existential test for American democracy, given Trump’s proven record of cheating to win (as seen in the current Ukrainegate scandal). Will Democratic voters really want to run in so important an election with a candidate who has already lost to Trump (Clinton), who lost another important presidential race 15 years ago (Kerry), who has never run for public office and shows no interest in doing so (Michelle Obama).

Bloomberg was a  Republican as recently as 2007 and is a billionaire who would enter the race to protect his wealth. This is unlikely to endear him to Democratic primary voters. And what special gifts do Brown or Holder bring to the table that isn’t already available from the large number of other centrists already running? Why would they do any better than Klobuchar or Bullock, let alone Biden or Buttigieg?

As polling savant Nate Silver tweeted, “What’s especially weird about these stories is none of the usual triggers of establishment panic are there.” Silver notes that the three leading candidates all poll well against Trump, a brokered convention is unlikely, and Democratic voters are highly positive about the candidates. There is no reason to panic.

The real source of anxiety among the donor class is surely not about the viability of Warren or Sanders but rather the precarious position of wealthy contributors in the Democratic coalition. Sanders has pioneered a form of small-donor fundraising that outpaces all the other candidates. The most common donors to Sanders were secondary school teachers and nurses. He also does well with bartenders, waiters, and waitresses. Pete Buttigieg, by contrast, has 23 billionaires giving him money, along with other donors who are less wealthy but still far better off than Sanders’s working-class base. Sanders’s revolution in fundraising, which only Warren comes close to matching, threatens to upturn the existing elite in the Democratic party.

No wonder wealthy donors can’t stand to look at the reality of the Democratic primary race. Facing the possibility of being shunted aside, they prefer to indulge in fan fiction about Michael Bloomberg or Bob Iger.




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