As I watch the deeply divided Democrats try to unify around a presidential candidate who can beat President Donald Trump, I find myself longing surprisingly for the days of the smoke-filled room.
No, children, it’s not just because I’m getting old and cynical, although that helps.
For most of my adult life, I have been a “goo-goo.” That’s a good-government reformer who applauded the demise of the legendary “smoke-filled room,” places where powerful politicians, party bosses and other insiders meet to cut deals and decide what candidates would appear on the ballot.
Appropriately, Chicago, where politics is never an art for the squeamish, gave birth to the term. The Encyclopedia of Chicago states that, according to legend, it was at the Blackstone Hotel in 1920 that a small group of powerful U.S. senators arranged for the nomination of Warren G. Harding to be the Republican presidential candidate. (Yes, kids, Republicans were much more plentiful in the city then than they are today.)
Today the Dems are in full freakout over the rising tide of Bernie Sanders and the “really big risk,” as former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called it, of having an avowed “democratic socialist” at the top of the Democratic ticket.
“In the last hundred years, three Democrats have won reelection for president: Franklin Roosevelt, President (Bill) Clinton, Barack Obama,” Emanuel explained on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” this week. All three, he said, ran with a goal of building “an urban, suburban, metropolitan coalition.”
And now? “Bernie is saying, ‘Forget that. Screw it,’” Emanuel continued. “Basically, (Sanders argues that) there are about 70 million socialists ready to be awoken to their inner socialist. And I would just say to you if our No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 goal is to get rid of Donald Trump, it is a really big risk to go on a political strategy that has never been tried before.”
Famous Democratic consultant James Carville, veteran of Clinton’s campaign war room, expressed a similarly pessimistic view in various media appearances, although louder.
“The entire theory that by expanding the electorate and increasing turnout you can win an election is the equivalent of climate denial,” Carville fumed on MSNBC last weekend about Sanders’ expand-the-base strategy. “All right? When people say that, they’re as stupid to a political scientist as a climate denier is to an atmospheric scientist.”
Not to be outdone for passion, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews apologized Monday for his own unfortunate comparison of Sanders’ Nevada victory to the Nazi invasion of France. As a loyal friend of Matthews, a former aide to the late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neal, I’m glad he apologized. But I also know he was expressing a general concern that a lot of old-school Democrats were keeping to themselves.
Many living Democrats can still remember what happened when control was yanked from the party establishment during the 1972 convention. That was the year when an independent challenge led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and then-North Side Alderman William Singer successfully unseated the elected Illinois delegation of party “machine” regulars led by Mayor Richard J. Daley, partly in a dispute over racial, ethnic and gender diversity. Outraged party regulars withdrew support from presidential nominee George McGovern’s campaign, easing President Richard Nixon’s path to a landslide reelection.
Sound familiar? Republicans were suffering similar consternation four years ago. Remember how a famous New York real estate developer and reality television star pulled the rug out from under the rest of the party’s lineup of experienced but mostly conventional contenders?
Now Trump seems to see some of himself in the rise of another New York-born and populist-sounding contender. Speaking to reporters during his India visit, he predicted that the congested Democratic nomination field will go all the way to the party’s convention, and that Sanders could prove to be the toughest Democratic opponent to beat in a general election.
Is Trump being sincere or playing one of his mind games on the liberals? A bit of both, I would say, given their barnstorming, populist-sounding similarities. In fact, Sanders is counting on arousing platoons of complacent nonvoters, usually missed by pollsters.
But, in a bad sign for Bernie, that turnout surge didn’t materialize in Iowa, Nevada or New Hampshire. Trump claims Sanders’ base is smaller than his. That’s debatable, but there’s no question Sanders’ turnout is younger.
And history shows us that younger voters are harder to arouse, especially when they think a candidate is being chosen for them in a secret room, smoke-filled or smoke-free.