WASHINGTON — 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 nomination. His campaign expired before Iowa, in September 1987. In 2008, his campaign collapsed the night he received 0.9% 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, Elizabeth Warren finished fourth and closer to last than to third. This effectively ended one of the two candidacies that could have guaranteed Donald Trump’s reelection. The other, that of Bernie Sanders, probably reached its apogee Tuesday because the success of Amy Klobuchar, who finished third but much closer to first than to fourth, demonstrated Democrats’ realism about how to defeat Trump at a time when 70% 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, like Klobuchar, start with more pluck than money, and less notoriety than seriousness. Sanders’ 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 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. In 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-and-tailfins 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 last 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.
George Will is a political writer for The Washington Post and can be reached at [email protected] His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.