Go Big or Go Back

Deval Patrick is running for president. Michael Bloomberg is sort of running for president. Because what the Democratic field needs is more candidates.

We’re less than three months away from actual voting, and the structure of the Democratic primary looks nothing like the conventional wisdom of last summer, when I suggested that the Joe Biden-as-sure-thing narrative was a Beltway concoction that misread the churning political currents of the Trump era. With Biden’s inability to establish himself as a prohibitive frontrunner making the outcome uncertain, these late entrants surveyed the terrain and concluded that there may just be a path to the nomination for someone new. 

After almost a year of campaigning, Democrats remain unified in their intense desire to defeat Donald Trump but divided in their beliefs about how to do it. The contest has exposed a divide in the Democratic electorate between those who believe you beat Trump by confronting the structural forces that produced him and those who believe you do it by providing a break from the madness. The first group, represented in varying shades by the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, argues that the way to defeat Trump is to go big. It has the consistent support of somewhere north of forty precent of the primary electorate. The second group, represented by Joe Biden, argues that the way to defeat Trump is to go back to the calm competence of the Obama years. It’s hard to gauge the size of this group in the electorate because Biden has proved an unreliable avatar, his support sinking to the mid-twenties from the 40% he claimed when he entered the race. There may well be a pool of voters seeking comfort who are not finding it in Joe Biden.

That’s where the Patrick and Bloomberg candidacies come in. Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, is hoping to position himself between Warren and Biden as someone who can rally progressives without scaring off establishment interests and channel Obama without promising to turn back the clock to the Obama era. He begins his quixotic quest without name recognition or an organization, and without the advantage of having spent months campaigning, but he must believe that no one else — notably Mayor Pete, who has been surging in Iowa and New Hampshire but as yet lags behind in more diverse states — can build a coalition that draws from both camps.

Bloomberg’s potential candidacy is more insidious. A creature of the media with more support among elites than actual voters, Bloomberg knows he will get a lot of buzz by hinting at a run. Rather than shaking hands at New Hampshire diners or eating fried butter at Iowa county fairs, he’s skipping the first four contests and keeping his options open in case Biden wobbles. Setting aside the fact that precisely zero late entrants have won the nomination since primaries began determining nominees in 1972, the most immediate effect of Bloomberg’s maybe-candidacy may be to freeze reluctant donors from supporting Biden at a time when he desperately needs cash.

The backstory to Bloomberg’s bid is the concern posed by Warren’s rise to top-tier contender. As Warren has emerged as a threat to capture the nomination, pushback against her candidacy from within the party has broadly speaking come from two camps. One is convinced her gender and/or the grandiosity of her plans and/or her desire to restructure the economy will scare off voters. These Democrats oppose her because they fear she will lose to Trump. Others fear she means what she says when she talks about restructuring the economy and will end a forty year bipartisan neoliberal consensus. These Democrats oppose her because they fear she will win. If Bloomberg is not in this group, his billions certainly are.

Biden’s softness and the robust challenge from the progressive left led us predictably to this moment, when concern is setting in among those who see Biden’s comfort food menu as the straightest path back to power but fear he can’t sell it, and those who wish to see Trump defeated without toppling the governing consensus that predated him. It’s not surprising that would-be candidates sitting on the sidelines would survey the situation and decide to jump in, even though Democratic voters have not expressed dissatisfaction with the existing talent in the field.

The contest is still formative enough to make predictions challenging. The early energy is emphatically behind going big, but when the votes start rolling in there may be more Democrats who find appeal in going back or supporting a candidate who offers a more measured direction. That both camps could find their voters divided among candidates adds an extra measure of uncertainty to how things will play out. But it is clear that at some point before they arrive in Milwaukee for their convention next summer, Democrats will need to reconcile these two perspectives in order to unify for next fall’s campaign, either with a candidate strategically positioned between them or a candidate from one camp who can figure out a way to speak to both.