At some point before the 2016 election a friend announced at lunch that she’d heard a psychic predict that the presidential nominees would be Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. “And he’s never been wrong,” she added, wide-eyed as a doe. The rest of us at the table reacted to this news with much hilarity because, pre-November 2016, that was the normal response. Donald Trump?! Bernie Sanders?! No way, José. Hillary Clinton is going to be the first woman president!
So, yeah. Now it appears my friend’s seer may have just been four years off, plenty of time to adjust our credulity meters. Lurching toward the November election, the prospect of a Sanders-Trump face-off may be thrilling to my Bernie-loving nephew in Brooklyn, but to me it is nothing short of madness, a bitter contest between two angry old white men who should be at home yelling at the TV from their recliners but are instead competing to be the leader of the free world.
If you are with me on this—and if you aren’t, please spare me your X-rated, misogynistic comments—then you have also joined me in that black hole of indecision, with the clock running down on Super Tuesday. Everywhere I go, it seems, many Democrats—liberals and moderates—look like the Edvard Munch emoji, hands to cheeks in a silent scream. People keep pulling me aside and whispering, frantically, “Who are you voting for?” as if they were begging for the best way to score some oxycontin.
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Most Democrats are focused on one thing: finding the candidate who can beat Donald Trump. I can give you an explanation, but if you are pro-Trump you won’t care and if you are anti-Trump you already know why: let’s just say that four years of chaos while the climate deteriorates, income inequality grows, racism and sexism flourish, corruption thrives, and a major public health crisis looms are plenty for me. It’s time to have a government again.
The trouble is, I can’t figure out who I want to run it, and neither, it seems, can many other Democratic voters. In the early days of the race, “vote your heart” seemed like an okay idea; now that the race has tightened and time is running out, that advice makes me want to break things. But trying to game the vote seems impossible; no strategy seems to promise an end to political and social turmoil.
I didn’t start out this way. Way, way back—in 2018—I thought I had found my candidate: Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans. He had pulled that city out of post-Katrina hell, he had the support of African Americans as a white Southerner—he’d written a good book about race in twenty-first-century America—and at 59 he was (relatively) young. But the drawbacks were pretty obvious: no one knew who Mitch Landrieu was, you didn’t get much with an unknown from Louisiana and, well, Mitch Landrieu wasn’t running.
So, some time toward the end of 2018, I switched to Elizabeth Warren. I had interviewed her when she was at Harvard about her 2004 book The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are (Still) Going Broke. She was great. She talked to me as if she had all the time in the world. She clearly and passionately explained the reasons for income inequality, and even then she seemed to have a plan that could work. If you recall, Warren was pegged as a front-runner early in the campaign. (“Leader of the Persistence,” said New York Magazine in the summer of 2018.) “She could be the next FDR,” one of my best friends insisted. I was in. Two years before the 2020 election, I already had my candidate.
As a backup, I had Amy Klobuchar. I was impressed when in September of 2018, at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, she took him to task for his drinking, asking him if he’d ever been black-out drunk. His answer: “Have you?” Klobuchar was from the blue-collar Midwest that Hillary Clinton squandered. She was sensible. She could work across the aisle. She got bills passed. She was a star at the Texas Tribune Festival.
And then there was Kamala Harris. She, too, was garlic-strong in the Kavanaugh hearings (“I’m asking you a very direct question—yes or no?”) and fought like a ninja warrior in the first debate in the summer of 2019 (“That little girl was me…”).
Three women to choose from! What could be better? I listened to all the whining about Warren’s voice, Klobuchar’s sarcasm, Harris’s aggression—and I was unmoved. All three of these women seemed perfectly capable of shredding Trump in a debate.
During my period of greatest excitement over the women trio, I dismissed the favorite of many old-line Dems, former vice president Joe Biden. I was sure he was the nicest guy in the race, and I was willing to spot him some of those weird caresses of little girls that started popping up in Facebook videos. But he didn’t distinguish himself as a debater—remember the line about using a record player at night to improve your kids’ vocabulary? I still remembered his patronizing sellout of Anita Hill, and, the more I listened to him, the more he seemed to talk about what he had done with his BFF Barack instead of what he planned to do on his own as president.
Mayor Pete? I watched him evolve into a polished candidate, and I liked the fact that he understood the military, and that he kissed his husband in front of everybody. I had close friends who loved him, but I just couldn’t go there: he was 38 and the mayor of a city of 102,000 and the racial strife therein. Still, he survived Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker. Any one of those guys struck me as better presidential material than Trump, but not one of them convinced me they could beat him.
And then there was Bernie, who had never stopped running since his loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016. I understood his appeal. In a country with persistent poverty and crushing student debt, where climate change is wreaking havoc and no candidate has managed to effect any real change for working people and the middle class, he made all the right promises. And he reminded me of one of my great-uncles in Baltimore. He was witty and pointed as the political season wore on, finding new ways to sell his proposals without giving an inch.
But that was also the problem for me. Bernie had been in Congress for 29 years. He was the lead sponsor of 422 bills, only three of which became law, and two involved naming post offices. It’s not Sanders’s politics I’m averse to as much as his inability to get things done. You can make the case that many of his ideas have been adapted by other candidates—Medicare for All, say—but as president he would have to do more than promise. Like Ted Cruz—and Donald Trump—he doesn’t play well with others.
Time passed. The race intensified. Harris dropped out, and Warren started doing some nutty stuff. She promised to end fracking on Day One of her administration. (I’m not averse to ending fracking, but since it’s given us global energy independence maybe Day One is a little too soon?) She also told a nine-year-old trans kid he would help her pick her Secretary of Education. She tried tacking to the middle but she wasn’t convincing. She tried tacking back into progressive waters, but Sanders had already claimed that portion of the sea. I switched to Klobuchar, deaf to my husband’s complaints that she was too snide to get elected.
But a lot of folks agreed with my husband. Klobuchar came in third in New Hampshire, but then fell below Tom Steyer in Nevada. She got 4 percent of the vote, Sanders got 46 percent. In South Carolina she got 3 percent to Biden’s 48.
In the meantime, another candidate had entered the race: former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. My immediate reaction was that he dearly hoped that no one remembered “Stop and Frisk,” the disastrous “crime-fighting” technique that unjustly criminalized untold numbers of black and brown kids.
All of this took place against the steady drumbeat of Trump indignities: family separations, abandoning our allies in Syria, cozying up to Putin, the Mueller investigation, a constant departure of Cabinet officials and, finally, impeachment in December. Did that make Trump weaker or stronger? No one really seemed to know.
But it was enough to make me take a second look at Bloomberg, even as I clung to Amy. I wasn’t so high on (another) septuagenarian who would be eighty early in his term. Nor was I cool with the idea of his buying the presidency. But, as the popularity of both Sanders and Trump increased, I started thinking about New York. Bloomberg was a good steward of the city—granted, if you were white—and he had given millions to help minority kids get good educations, to raise awareness of climate change, to stop gun violence and the war on Planned Parenthood. I mentioned a possible shift to my 29-year-old son, who has stayed loyal to Warren. Here is what he texted me: “Between stop and frisk, his transphobic and racist comments, and now his assistance of the awful Sackler family [who are responsible for the opioid epidemic] …This is just a polished turd instead of the massive pile of shit we have now.” He followed his comments with the shoulder-shrug emoji.
I was still considering Bloomberg, though, as the statewide fears about Sanders started ratcheting up in the last month or so. In February, I went to a Mike for Black America rally in Houston’s Third Ward where I asked people about stop and frisk. “Everyone makes mistakes,” was the near-universal answer in that almost all black crowd—everyone just wanted Trump out. All the food trucks and T-shirts were free. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner gave a rousing endorsement, and then … this little, grey-haired man came up and started promising he could Get It Done. Suffice it to say that his Academy Award-quality ads shown on the monitors were more convincing.
After Valentine’s Day, Bernie was galloping into the lead. In the latest polls, he was trouncing Biden and Bloomberg in Texas. The anxiety among my friends ratcheted up accordingly. “We are so screwed with Bernie,” one texted. “Whatever chance we had of winning the Texas House or coming close is gone with him at the top. And that’s redistricting. Screwed.” In other words, with Bernie at the top of the ticket, conventional wisdom held that moderate Democrats would stay home, and all current and future gains among Democrats statewide would be doomed, possibly for a generation. Again.
Moderate Democrats like Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher, who clawed and scratched her way to victory over the antediluvian Republican John Culberson, would be vulnerable all over again with Bernie as the Democratic presidential nominee. Ditto Colin Allred in Dallas. In Texas, Sanders loomed as the progressive who might stop progress in its tracks.
And then came the South Carolina primary just two days ago, a.k.a. the Resurrection of Joe Biden. He won a whopping 48 percent of the vote, with Sanders a far distant second with only 20. On Sunday, Mayor Pete dropped out, Klobuchar on Monday. (Tom Steyer? Yes, but who cared?) “How did the Dems end up throwing at us two elderly, failing fools?” asked my best friend, who, as you can see, is no fan of Biden or Sanders.
It’s about eleven hours until the polls open, and I have yet to make a decision. People need something to vote for is a political trope I’ve always ascribed to. Maybe in the next few hours one of these pols will come through for me.