So it’s worth thinking about what Democrats are saying to each other privately and what the politicians seeking to lead the party are saying publicly, because they aren’t the same thing. That isn’t inherently problematic — there are some things candidates shouldn’t say — but it is revealing.
Let’s start with the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the leading candidates throughout the campaign, just had a heart attack. By all appearances, it was mild and was treated with a routine procedure, and he seems to be recovering well. Nevertheless, because Sanders is 78 years old, one reaction I’ve heard from Democrats (to be clear, I’m not talking about public officials, just people I know) was “Well, that’s too bad, but his campaign is probably over.”
If that seems unfair, it certainly is. Sanders doesn’t have a history of heart problems that would suggest his life is in imminent danger. And whether you agree with his politics or not, it’s difficult to deny that, at an age when many people are beginning to experience some cognitive decline, he seems extremely mentally sharp, with an answer for any question and a clever response for any criticism.
But the assumption is that though he’s probably no less able to do the job of president today than he was a month ago, the public just won’t be forgiving, even if the currently 73-year-old president eats nothing but fast food and frequently devolves into incoherent gibberish when speaking in public.
Like many assumptions about what other people believe, the idea that the public would reject Sanders because of his age and health is based less on hard evidence than gut feeling. I can’t say exactly how widespread that feeling is among Democrats, but its existence is undeniable, even if his opponents will only offer him their good wishes.
Likewise, the Democrats running for president are standing behind Joe Biden as he gets attacked by President Trump over his son Hunter’s work in Ukraine. When asked directly whether they’d allow their children to sit on the boards of foreign companies, the Democratic candidates either have tried to change the subject or have said no while attempting to make the discussion as abstract as possible so as not to appear to be criticizing Biden.
Yet, in private, you won’t get much disagreement among Democrats that as dishonest as Trump’s attacks on Biden are, and notwithstanding the fact that Trump is the most corrupt president in history, Hunter Biden’s deal with a Ukrainian energy company was, well, kind of sleazy.
He was doing what mediocre children of famous and powerful people have done for hundreds of years: Trade on their names for money. It’s the same thing that Trump’s children do, and that various members of the Bush clan have done, and that the children of senators and congressmen and mayors do, and that’s done by the children of people who are influential in realms outside of politics.
That tells you nothing about what sort of president Joe Biden would be, but there’s still a widespread discomfort with the possibility that the Hunter Biden story could allow Trump to muddy the waters at a time when his corruption should and will be one of the main issues of the campaign. Again, that might happen or it might not, but the fear among Democrats is there.
The third candidate at the top of the pack, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), mostly causes unease among Democrats who worry that she has made too many commitments for large government programs and progressive initiatives, commitments Republicans could exploit. The attempt to smear her over the fact that she lost her job in 1971 when she got pregnant seems to have failed, but she’ll inevitably make Democrats nervous, too.
That’s because dread is the default mode for Democrats. They always think they’re about to screw everything up, a fear that, given their history, is not completely unwarranted. But you won’t hear their candidates say it on the campaign trail or from a debate stage, where optimism and solidarity reign.