The virtue of this pri­mary race

The Washington Post - - THURSDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL [email protected]­post.com

Af­ter three fail­ures as the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee (1896, 1900, 1908), Ne­braska’s Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan, a pop­ulist tee­to­taler, told a story about a drunk who, af­ter be­ing hurled out of a club a third time, dusted him­self off and said: “They can’t fool me. Those fel­lows don’t want me in there.” Joe Bi­den can sym­pa­thize.

He was al­ready in his third Sen­ate term when he sought the Democrats’ 1988 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. His cam­paign ex­pired be­fore Iowa, in Septem­ber 1987. In 2008, his cam­paign col­lapsed the night he re­ceived 0.9 per­cent of Iowa’s vote. He has never won any­where out­side Delaware, the na­tion’s 45th-most-pop­u­lous state, which has not elected a Repub­li­can as con­gress­man since 2008, as se­na­tor since 1994, or as gov­er­nor since 1988.

In New Hamp­shire, Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-mass.) fin­ished fourth and closer to last than to third. This ef­fec­tively ended one of the two can­di­da­cies that could have guar­an­teed Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­elec­tion. The other, that of Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-VT.), prob­a­bly reached its apogee Tues­day be­cause the suc­cess of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-minn.), who fin­ished third but much closer to first than to fourth, demon­strated Democrats’ re­al­ism about how to de­feat Trump at a time when 70 per­cent of vot­ers self-iden­tify as mod­er­ate or con­ser­va­tive.

To­day’s nom­i­na­tion process has myr­iad de­fects but one man­i­fest virtue: It pro­vides am­ple time and small early venues for as­pi­rants who, such as Klobuchar, start with more pluck than money, and less no­to­ri­ety than se­ri­ous­ness. San­ders’s com­ing de­feat might send some of his most dys­pep­tic sup­port­ers — those most like him — into hi­ber­na­tion or op­po­si­tion. Pout­ing would be in char­ac­ter for true be­liev­ers who are self-righ­teous and ide­o­log­i­cally ine­bri­ated. But it would not nec­es­sar­ily be fa­tal to the Demo­cratic Party, which has sur­vived de­fec­tions be­fore. In 1948, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thur­mond led the Dix­iecrats’ re­bel­lion on the right, and Henry Wal­lace, Franklin Roo­sevelt’s sec­ond vice pres­i­dent, led the Pro­gres­sives’ depar­ture from the left, yet FDR’S third vice pres­i­dent, then-pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man, won any­way.

Mike Bloomberg’s 30-sec­ond ads do not re­sem­ble the Fed­er­al­ist Pa­pers, but nei­ther do they lower the in­tel­lec­tual tone set by the Democrats’ “de­bates” — and they have pro­pelled him into con­tention. There is, how­ever, some point at which such blast mar­ket­ing has steeply di­min­ish­ing ef­fec­tive­ness. Over the last five months of the 2016 cam­paign, in two hotly con­tested metropoli­tan ar­eas in swing states, Las Ve­gas saw 20,471 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign ads and Colum­bus, Ohio, saw 15,658. Such me­dia blitzkrieg­s be­come like wall­pa­per — there but not no­ticed.

Whether Bloomberg’s cam­paign suc­ceeds or fails, the repub­lic will ben­e­fit. If nom­i­nated, he might go on to fu­mi­gate the Oval Of­fice, and the po­lit­i­cal scolds who lament “too much money in pol­i­tics” will be ec­static about what his spend­ing ac­com­plished. If, how­ever, his “over­whelm­ing” spend­ing does not over­whelm, this will re­fute the scolds’ un­em­pir­i­cal as­ser­tions about the ir­re­sistible power of money-bought ad­ver­tis­ing. In 1957, Ford Mo­tor Co. put its enor­mous mar­ket­ing power be­hind a new prod­uct, but the Ed­sel’s un­happy life lasted just 26 months.

In pol­i­tics, too, the prod­uct it­self mat­ters more than the mar­ket­ing of it. Bloomberg’s in­cur­able anti-charisma makes him the equiv­a­lent of a no-non­sense sedan, an agree­able con­trast with the gaudy chrome-and­tail­fins of Trump, a hu­man land-yacht. Bloomberg’s de­meanor is that of some­one who knows how to smile but re­sists the in­cli­na­tion. There are, how­ever, cred­i­ble re­ports of a dry — arid, ac­tu­ally — Bloomberg wit­ti­cism. Asked about a pos­si­ble fall cam­paign be­tween two bil­lion­aires, he replied: Who would be the sec­ond one?

Bloomberg has a knack for get­ting un­der Trump’s mi­cro­scop­i­cally thin skin. His needling of Trump would aug­ment the pub­lic stock of harm­less plea­sure and could leave Trump wal­low­ing waist-deep in his in­se­cu­ri­ties, a sight that mem­bers of his cult need to see and ev­ery­one else would en­joy see­ing.

Among Demo­cratic ac­tivists, a nascent ABB fac­tion — Any­body But Bloomberg — is de­cry­ing New York’s “stop and frisk” anti-hand­gun po­lice mea­sures dur­ing his may­oralty, mea­sures of­ten ap­plied to young mi­nor­ity males. This pol­icy prob­a­bly was more lamented by white lib­er­als liv­ing in build­ings with door­men than by mi­nori­ties liv­ing in dan­ger. Nev­er­the­less, a party whose most fer­vid mem­bers con­sider “bil­lion­aire” an unan­swer­able ep­i­thet might flinch from nom­i­nat­ing one of those who was not so long ago elected to of­fice as a Repub­li­can.

So, a Bloomberg-klobuchar ticket is less fea­si­ble, and prob­a­bly would be less po­tent than, say, a Klobuchar-de­val Pa­trick (the African Amer­i­can former two-term gov­er­nor of Mas­sachusetts) ticket. So, af­ter Tues­day, it is some­what less likely that the Trump-mike Pence ticket will re­peat its Mid­west vic­to­ries or add Min­nesota to them.

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