While America goes tumbling into the future without a clear plan for responding to COVID-19, the Democratic Party is facing an internal debate about whether to hold its national convention in-person this August. Many DNC Delegates, and I am a delegate for Elizabeth Warren from Colorado, are expressing concerns or outright intent to boycott an in-person convention over health concerns. Meanwhile, DNC chair Tom Perez has indicated the party will hold a “muscular” convention in Milwaukee in just a few months.
Couple that with presumptive nominee Joe Biden facing a steady stream of misconduct allegations and you have a recipe for political disaster for which no one seems to be planning.
Imagine that Joe Biden is ultimately forced out of the race over concerns about improper conduct. If that had happened before the Iowa Caucus it’s merely a dramatic end to a campaign under difficult circumstances — par for the course in modern politics. However, if Joe were to drop out anytime between now and the convention the Democratic Party may be well and truly screwed.
When you consider the repercussions for Biden being pressured out of the race now, it’s easy to see why the Democratic Party establishment is staying behind him.
You can almost count on one hand the remaining Democratic primaries that have yet to be contested, and none of them hold enough delegates for anyone to secure the nomination now. His leaving would guarantee a contested convention in August, one that may have trouble even reaching a quorum.
Setting aside parliamentary procedure and the seating of delegates, imagine the first contested convention in contemporary politics being decided by one of two bodies: 1) a skeleton crew of Democratic convention delegates in Milwaukee that has been significantly parsed down by COVID-19 concerns; or 2) the entire delegate corps voting over Zoom. Sure you can mute the attendees; and we all know there’s no group more willing to be silenced than Democratic convention delegates. Pause for laughter.
You would have a situation the media would love (see: total pandemonium) and that the Trump Campaign would capitalize on at each step.
A few months ago, dreaming of a contested convention was all the rage. But those dreams hinged on a situation in which Sanders, Biden, maybe Warren, and others were fighting it out on the floor with a significant number of pledged delegates to their name. If Joe drops out and truly leaves the nomination to the smoke-filled room, possibly a half empty room in Wisconsin, it’s hard to imagine a nominee coming out of that process intact.
All the 2020 candidates of note would be back on the table: Sanders (perhaps most all, as he still has significant delegate numbers), Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar. You could even see Kamala Harris and Cory Booker return with “favorite son” support of their home state delegates; in Harris’ case that’s a lot of California delegates. You can be sure Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Jay Inslee, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tom Steyer would take meetings about jumping in too. No reason to think Bloomberg would stay out of the fray either.
Meanwhile some of the heroes, or antiheroes depending on your perspective, of the COVID-19 crisis could capitalize on the moment to be drafted from the floor. Governors Andrew Cuomo, Gretchen Whitmer, and Gavin Newsom all come to mind as plausible new entries to the 2020 nomination fight. While at least a few delegates will cast votes for Marianne Williamson, Mickey Mouse, and Bill Clinton. Even more would vote for Hillary.
If a significant number of DNC delegates simply abstain from attending an in-person convention in protest, the smart money is on the convention simply nullifying their existence and requiring only a majority of those delegates attending to nominate a candidate for President. It’s not unreasonable to think the body of voting DNC delegates could go from almost 4,000 to just several hundred if the convention is ultimately held in Milwaukee.
A small group of an organization’s elites picking the next leader you say? There are few apt metaphors for the chaos of potential outcomes in a contested, possibly digital nominating convention. The best comparison I can think of is anything but digital: a papal conclave.
In a conclave, the College of Cardinals get together in Rome and take as many tries as they need to pick a Pope. There are a few hundred voting cardinals at any given time, from all across the world, each with distinct interests and philosophies. They usually don’t pick the most beloved options from across their ideological divides, they usually pick somebody they can all live with. A compromise candidate. John Paul II was a notable compromise candidate when he took the papacy on the eighth ballot in 1978. Before cable news. Before social media.
Who would be the compromise candidate for a contested Democratic convention now? A convention mired by accusations of illegitimacy whether it is held in-person or online. Imagine a Democratic National Convention, which has not gone past a first ballot in the better part of a century, going to an eighth ballot (or more) in front of Fox News and Twitter. Good luck to the winner of that bloodbath.
Then, just when you think the convention is over and the nominee triumphantly pulls the slings and arrows out of her back to declare victory… it’s merely time to pick the Vice Presidential nominee.
With so much uncertainty, the looming accusations of disenfranchisement of the delegates, and the entrenched party interests at stake… it’s easy to see why Democratic power brokers are turning a blind eye to the accusations of sexual misconduct that are plaguing the Biden campaign. Many of them have known Joe for years, many of them have legitimate concerns about the accusations, and most of them have their own futures to think of. It’s hard to ignore that the simplest explanation for the Democratic Party staying behind Biden is that without a standard bearer, the army will simply scatter.
A contested convention will leave the ultimate nominee bruised and bloodied; with bitter disdain among the losing factions in their party, no money in the bank, and a media circus from which to recover. Along with a laundry list of IOUs to resolve from securing the win. All with three months until election day.
It’s an outcome that only benefits the potential for a second Trump term. It would be a kidney punch to Democrat’s chances to retake the Senate, it probably puts house seats and state legislatures in play that weren’t before— right before we redraw congressional districts for 2022 — and, if possible, only provides more uncertainty for the economy.
The only salvation from this hell would come from one person.
I’m reminded of the climactic scene in Back to the Future II when Marty McFly sees his hero, Doc Brown, zapped out of the air by a bolt of lightning. A messenger comes along and asks Marty if he needs help, to which Marty replies, “There’s only one man who can help me.” In this analogy, that man is President Barack Obama.
If Barack were to get behind a candidate, preferably before the convention or after a ballot or two, it could spare the party the self-inflicted wounds of a bitterly contested convention. President Obama is the only person (on Earth) with the favorability and goodwill necessary within the party to anoint a nominee.
Would he do it? It’s all risk and the reward is merely a better chance to defeat Donald Trump. An outcome he is no more invested in than anyone else at this point.
Choosing an alternative to Joe Biden is a decision no strategic Democrat wants to make, and so you will continue to see the Party’s establishment stay with him until the tide turns. Until the consequence of sticking with Joe is outweighed by the consequences of opening the Pandora’s Box that is sitting quietly behind the demise of the Biden candidacy.