Trump's Opponents -- ALL of Trump's Opponents -- Must Take the Solidarity Pledge

by Neil H. Buchanan

Three years ago, when it looked as though Donald Trump's takeover of the Republican Party might yet be stopped by party insiders (who were desperately trying to get people to vote for one of a cast of almost comically overrated contenders -- Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal ... ), people started to wonder whether Trump would retaliate by mounting a third-party campaign.  He was thus asked -- pointedly and prominently, especially during the joint appearances that somehow were called debates -- whether he would pledge "here and now" that he would rally to support the Republican nominee if he lost.

Trump refused, even though the others onstage would always take the pledge.  (Everyone knew the question was not aimed at them, but in the interest of appearing balanced, they went through the motions.)  The matter was never tested, of course, but it seems more than likely that Trump would have been willing to continue his ego-fest as an independent, even if doing so would have resulted in a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Although Trump was (as ever) a special case, the question of how to handle losing is at the core of political life.  "Politics ends at the water's edge" captures the idea that national interests supersede political rivalries, even across parties.  The peaceful transition of power after an election -- another fundamental assumption of the American system that Trump might well flout -- similarly expresses the idea that losers rally around the winner at least enough to say that the government is legitimate and that future elections will always be there to reverse one's fortunes.

On the intra-party level, as in Trump's 2016 flirtation with a third-party run, the question of loyalty and sore losing is especially acute.  There is always the possibility that a person can leave in disgust, so any party has an interest in keeping the loser and his or her supporters in the fold.  When Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination, there was a lot of pressure on Bernie Sanders to come out strongly in support of her.  Although there has lately been some reported snark from former Clinton people about Sanders being a demanding surrogate, he certainly did a lot to support Clinton and gave a very gracious speech at the convention, all the while working to keep his committed and disappointed supporters from engaging in all-out revolt.

The question that I am interested in today is whether the Democratic establishment and the NeverTrump non-Democrats are going to view the solidarity pledge as a one-way deal.  That is, they clearly expect "the left" to rally around a centrist or center-right candidate; but it is at best not clear that they will reciprocate if the nominee is not to their liking.

It is time to get them on the record on this question: "Do you pledge that, no matter who is the Democratic nominee, you will support her or him and campaign enthusiastically for the ticket in the general election?"  This should not be a difficult question, but I am worried that it is for some people.

The current buzz among pundits is that the Democratic base is somehow going to "blow the election" by nominating someone who is supposedly unelectable.  As I noted in a recent column, this framing of the state of the race almost invariably treats Trump as the Great and Powerful Force of American Politics, even though he is in fact highly unpopular and has done nothing but narrow his appeal while in office.

That is not to say that Democrats can take anything for granted, of course, but it truly is weird -- and self-defeating -- for people to treat Trump as some intimidating force of nature.  People hate him, and they are eager to vote against him.  The only issue is whether there are people who will be scared off by the imaginary extremism of the Democrats' more left-leaning candidates.

I call their extremism imaginary because it continues to confound me that pundits and party establishment types think of the Warren/Sanders policy agenda as anything but mainstream and popular.  Here is a helpful summary of Sanders' current platform, via The Washington Post:
"It includes: reducing wage and income inequality; Medicare-for-all; free public college tuition; a national $15 an hour minimum wage; a trillion-dollar infrastructure program; overturning Citizens United and moving to public financing of campaigns; an aggressive climate change action program that includes going after the fossil fuels industry; comprehensive immigration reform; criminal justice reform; an end to private prisons; breaking up the big banks; taking on the pharmaceutical industry; universal affordable child care; expanded Social Security benefits; a federal jobs guarantee; rebuilding rural America; new gun control legislation."
I understand that some people think of various aspects of this agenda as politically unattainable, but what about it is extreme -- and not just extreme, but so extreme that it will send the now-mythic suburban voters running to vote for Trump?  I suspect that the self-styled moderates would (like Hillary Clinton) want to tweak the minimum wage proposal with, say, regional cost-of-living differences.  Surely they will say that it is all too expensive (although they would be wrong).  Even Trump continually talks about trillion-dollar infrastructure proposals -- the difference being that the Democrats' version of infrastructure spending would not be a Trumpian Trojan Horse (a Trumpan Horse?) to privatize public goods and shovel more money to Wall Street.

Again, I am not saying that everyone will agree with everything on Sanders's list; and there are plenty of specifics to haggle over within feel-good vague phrases like "going after the fossil fuels industry" or "criminal justice reform."  But really, gun control and expanded Social Security benefits, to pick just two items on the list (to say nothing of "rebuilding rural America") sound awfully mainstream and popular.

True, there are Clintonian triangulators and others who still think -- for no good reason -- that the Bowles-Simpson report (the magical proposal that I once called the center-right's "bible of righteous pretense") represented the high point of American statesmanship.  They are horrified by anything other than old-fashioned center-right economic orthodoxy.  Fine.  What will they do if their preferred candidates lose?

The current hope for the "we must stop careening to the left" crowd is Joe Biden.  An op-ed by Michael Tomasky in yesterday's New York Times all but screams at the supposedly unreasonable left wing of the party to give up and get behind the former vice president, whom Tomasky assures us could certainly beat Trump.  "How can the Democrats have a candidate they all agree would stand a very strong chance of recapturing the White House, gaining the power to appoint liberal Supreme Court justices and all the rest, and yet not be hankering to send that candidate into battle?"

Well, it might be that Biden is very problematic in a lot of ways that even people who are not the reviled "party activists" would care about, that he has a history as an uneven campaigner, and that he represents exactly what brought the party to its knees throughout the last generation -- a desire not to rock the boat or to trust voters to support Democrats' superior (and popular) policy views.

But again, the issue here is not whether I want Biden to be the nominee.  I clearly do not, but I am absolutely capable of making an impassioned case for him if he leads the 2020 ticket.  His history is history, and his present looks a lot better by comparison.  He absolutely owned Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan in the 2008 and 2012 vice presidential debates, respectively.  He is genuinely likable and sometimes speaks in (non-plagiarized) poetic terms about the obligations and blessings of public service.

In 2016, I not only argued that Clinton was clearly better than Trump.  I wrote passionately -- and I still believe -- that she was more progressive than she had been in the past, so much so that I ended up supporting her over Sanders in the primaries.  There is plenty good to say about Biden, and if the time comes, I will enthusiastically say it.  I suspect that Kamala Harris, Liz Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders (just to name a few of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate) will do so as well.

Will the people pining for Biden (or Beto O'Rourke) do the same, if the roles are reversed?  Obviously, the stumbling block for many of these people is not really the agenda (again, very popular) of the left.  It is "socialism," which pundits are absolutely sure will doom the Democrats, especially if Sanders is the nominee.

I agree that the Republicans will have an easier time with Sanders as the nominee, at least in terms of red-baiting.  We should bear in mind that this is all a matter of degree, because the Republicans are going to red-bait any Democrat, but it is certainly valid for people to wonder whether gaining Sanders's passionate supporters is enough to offset the possible losses of voters who are skittish about an ill-defined word (many of whom would probably not vote at all, rather than vote for Trump, but that is obviously still a problem).

But what if the process results in Sanders (or another supposedly too-far-left candidate) being the Democratic nominee?  I want to know if the Bidens of the world and their supporters -- as well as the non-Democrats who claim to see clearly just how awful Trump is -- are willing to stipulate in advance that they will support the Democratic nominee, full stop.

It is not as if it would be difficult to articulate the case for Sanders.  Pundits could spend their time telling people that democratic socialism is not Stalinism.   (They should already be doing so.)  The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been told time and again to accept "reality" and support someone with whom they disagree, because winning is too important.  If the shoe is on the other foot, will the people who have made an art out of condescendingly insisting that others are being too rigid listen to their own advice?

So let's hear it, centrists and center-right scolds.  You know (or claim that you know) that Trump is an existential threat to American democracy and everything that we hold dear.  You might not be especially happy with all of the Democratic candidates, but every single one of them is an honorable patriot whom you could honestly say is by far the better choice.  Are you going to sulk and blame "left-wing activists" for ruining things, or will you step up and do what you would want them to do?  Will you take the pledge?

If the answer is yes, then we can now have some fun arguing with each other as the nomination process moves forward.  But if the answer is no, then it is time to stop pretending that you see Trump for the threat that he truly is.