The Democratic donor class is panicking. With former vice president Joe Biden burning through cash yet unable to put away his rivals, the chances of a progressive left nominee leading the ticket in 2020 are on the rise. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are outpacing Biden in fundraising and running circles around him on the debate stage. And members of the party establishment are seemingly desperate for someone to swoop in and save them.
Last week, the New York Times published an eye-popping story about a recent dinner at a ritzy Manhattan hotel, where Democratic big donors fantasized about possible late entrants to the presidential race. Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Obama were among those discussed as potential alternatives to the current field. Former secretary of state John F. Kerry, former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have also been encouraged to run. Oprah Winfrey, once considered a possible candidate herself, has even touted Disney CEO Bob Iger as the ideal nominee.
This sort of speculation is a tradition in presidential primaries. It’s also evidence that Democratic elites are detached from reality. Clinton’s book tour and scheduled appearance at a Clinton Foundation conference on “economic inclusion and growth” on Nov. 20 (the same day as the next Democratic debate) have fueled rumors about her intentions. But she and Kerry are the last two Democrats to lose in a general election. Bloomberg is the definition of a plutocrat. What can any of them offer, aside from money, that the existing crop of centrists cannot?
Party elites claim the desire for alternatives isn’t motivated by ideology, but rather sincere worries about the electability of a progressive left nominee. As former Obama adviser David Axelrod told the Times, “There is genuine concern that the horse many have bet on [Biden] may be pulling up lame and the horse who has sprinted out front may not be able to win.” It is fair to question how genuine those electability concerns are, however, with polls, fickle as they can be, showing Sanders and Warren trouncing President Trump in head-to-head matchups.
The truth is that establishment angst is being driven, above all, by power — and moneyed Democrats who can feel their grasp on power in the party slipping. Big donors may be willing to pay more in taxes under a Democratic president, but they seem unwilling to abide the loss of access or influence over the party’s direction that a Sanders or Warren presidency would bring. Indeed, as Nation correspondent Jeet Heer writes, “The real source of anxiety among the donor class is surely not about the viability of Warren or Sanders but rather the precarious position of wealthy contributors in the Democratic coalition.”
There were promising signs of a shift in the midterm elections, which saw movement-backed candidates defeat well-funded incumbents, as well as a widespread rejection of corporate PAC money by candidates across the country. After winning the majority, House Democrats made their top legislative priority a package of democratic reforms that would reduce the influence of big donors, including a 6-to-1 match of small donations and mandatory disclosure of contributors to “dark money” groups. And, of course, the momentum has carried into the presidential contest, as Sanders and Warren substantially outraised their opponents in the third quarter while relying exclusively on small donors.
Still, the establishment donor class won’t relinquish its influence without a fight, and the pendulum could easily swing back in the other direction. With just $9 million in cash on hand, well below Warren and Sanders, Biden signaled last week that he would welcome the help of a super PAC that would have the ability to raise unlimited funds, reversing his prior opposition to such an effort. Meanwhile, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has conspicuously tacked to the center of late, abandoning his previous support for Medicare-for-all in an apparent effort to elevate his standing among the party elite. These moves may be cynical but are hardly surprising.
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Unlike their centrist opponents, Sanders and Warren have proved that their loyalty and principles cannot be bought. While they share big donors’ commitment to defeating Trump, they are not willing to be restorationists. They are committed to defeating the centrist orthodoxy that Democratic leaders, largely under the influence of donors, have clung to for too long. That’s good for democracy but not for the plutocrats who are used to exerting power in the party. The establishment is right to be anxious.