Is it time for Democrats to panic?

Some people sure want to believe it. With the first contest of the 2020 presidential primaries a week in the past and the second happening Tuesday, a look across the news media suggests that if you’re a Democrat, a full-on freakout is in order. Some recent headlines:

Just imagine if Democrats still don’t know who their nominee will be after two whole states have voted, with only 48 left to go. What ever will they do?

Oh please. Everyone just calm down.

People in politics suffer from a kind of myopia, in which what’s right in front of them, being in sharp focus, seems like the most important thing that has ever happened or will ever happen. This Changes Everything, we say over and over, despite the fact that the last 10 or 15 events that were supposed to Change Everything turned out to be so inconsequential that we’ve already forgotten what they were.

And what is it that’s happening now, this extraordinary disarray that threatens to destroy Democrats’ chances of winning in November? You might want to send the children out of the room before I tell you: Presidential candidates are criticizing each other.

And also, at least one candidate many thought was a serious contender (Joe Biden) is faltering. And a candidate many think will struggle in a general election (Bernie Sanders) looks strong.

What a calamity! Has any party ever witnessed such madness?

Play the Post Opinions Simulator to see what might happen in the Democratic primary.
The better Biden embraces personal vulnerability over electoral invincibility, says Post columnist Karen Tumulty. (The Washington Post)

The answer to that question is: Of course. It happens every four years. A field of presidential contenders starts off being polite and friendly to one another, emphasizing that the real enemy is across the aisle, and then as the actual voting approaches, the criticisms become more pointed and aggressive. Some candidates don’t perform well enough, and drop out. Often the race comes down to two or three, who unload all kinds of nasty attacks on each other.

And sometimes, the candidates represent factions of the party that don’t particularly like each other, lending an increased bitterness to the competition. That was the case with Donald Trump and pretty much all his primary opponents in 2016. It was the case with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. It was the case with George W. Bush and John McCain in 2000. Yet all those times, the bad feelings were patched up well enough for the nominee to prevail in the fall.

And what is the nature of this supposed disarray in the Democratic Party? The candidates are making what are pretty mild criticisms of one another: Sanders could have trouble passing his agenda. Biden isn’t the candidate of the future. Pete Buttigieg doesn’t have much experience. Everyone thinks the candidates they aren’t supporting would lose to Trump.

My stars, all this fussin’ and fightin’ is enough to give me the vapors!

But what about Iowa?, you say. It’s true that the caucuses were a debacle. But in the end, it looks as though both Sanders and Buttigieg can claim a sort of victory, and at this point it doesn’t really matter which won of them “won” by whichever standard you favor.

Oh, but isn’t Trump just terribly popular right now? He could win!

Well, yes, he could. We live in such an intensely polarized age that if Republicans nominated a sewer rat infected with hantavirus, it would pull 45 percent of the vote. This was always going to be a close election no matter what.

But Trump is actually not all that popular, despite people getting worked up about one poll that showed him at a spectacular 49 percent approval. He’s still the only president in the history of polling to have never cracked 50 percent, and his average approval is more like 44 percent, within a couple of points of where it has been for most of his term.

But if my favorite candidate isn’t the nominee, we’re doomed!, Democrats will say. Everyone always thinks that, in both parties.

That doesn’t mean some of them might not be right. All the candidates have vulnerabilities. But we won’t know how it will all play out until we have a matchup between Trump and one Democrat. Perhaps the theory of victory the nominee operates by (and they all have one) will turn out to be true, or perhaps not. We all tend to be far too certain about our “electability” judgments than history would suggest we should be.

So no, Democrats are not in disarray. What we’re witnessing now is a run-of-the-mill party primary. It may have some twists and turns remaining, and there will be more sniping and faux outrage. But it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

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