The Elephant in the Spin Room

When a liberal hears that the managing director of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital is entering the Democratic presidential race, she knows that she’s either being punked by her Trump-loving uncle, or something’s truly and terribly wrong.

The fact that two sober-minded businessmen/politicians, Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg, believe that the 2020 Democratic candidate field is so weak that they could, at this late date, pick up momentum for Super Tuesday, and then pick up the pieces at a brokered convention, tells you how bleak the Left’s presidential prospects have become.

Of course, you wouldn’t have known it watching the parade of progressive pundits and personalities making brave faces and forced banter on MSNBC’s coverage of the fifth Democratic debate.

Reminiscent of anxiety laughter at a funeral, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, in his endearing chuckle-speak, tried to tamp down fear that the leftist/purity-centrist/electability schism in the party would cause a fatal falloff in enthusiasm and, hence, voter turnout in the general election.  He sees a “synthesis” occurring as disparate factions inevitably coalesce around the Democratic nominee and march forward united.

Unfortunately, few Democrats heard that comforting prediction. The television audience for the fifth debate had withered to barely more than one-third of the number who viewed the first debate in June -- from 18.1 to just 6.6 million.

The job of buttressing the hopes of the party then fell to former GOP operative Steve Schmidt, who has long been a beloved figure at left-leaning MSNBC. 

And with good reason. As counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney and in management roles in Lamar Alexander’s and John McCain’s failed presidential campaigns, Republican strategist Schmidt has done more to advance the Left’s political fortunes than almost any Democratic strategist.

No one knows better than Steve Schmidt what it takes to defeat Republicans. And now, fresh from helping Howard Schultz’s presidential campaign implode, he’s rejoined the MSNBC team to bestow his analytical gift on the remaining Democratic contenders, such as they are.

The panel listened intently as Schmidt, in his authoritative monotone, insisted that former vice president Joe Biden had his strongest debate performance yet, glossing over Biden's age-related word garbling and the monumental gaffe of his forgetting that the woman of color two podia to his left was an African-American senator.

Undeterred, Schmidt maintained that Biden doesn’t actually need to win any debates. He simply has to “survive” the debates. Then, presumably, he only needs to survive the first two crucial votes, in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he’s languishing in fourth place behind the leader: the largely unknown 37-year-old mayor of the 306th largest city in America, Pete Buttigieg, who also dominates Biden nationally in donor dollars raised.

The parsing of opinions and tortuous search for silver linings was a gloomy reminder that there is no Clinton-Obama “clash of the titans” possible with this curious collection of polarized and polarizing candidates, something House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surmised, no doubt, by the third debate, two weeks before she decided to switch to Plan “I” to try to defeat Donald Trump.

Even panel moderator Brian Williams, usually a wellspring of highfalutin flattery and long-winded queries, was uncharacteristically subdued.

As for the nascent campaigns of billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Bain Capital’s Deval Patrick, there was hardly a mention. That’s because any serious discussion would have led to explaining why they so confidently entered the race this late in the process, and the wholesale disparaging of the Democratic field that would follow was clearly off limits. As was any navel-gazing about the “soul of the Democratic party” until, that is, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews pointed out the electoral “elephant” in the middle of the spin room.  It’s a problem bigger than the merits of the messengers. It’s about the tone-deaf aspects of the progressive message itself.

Matthews bemoaned the fact that today’s Democrats “always miss the cultural piece,” meaning that they are quick to minimize -- and even demonize, as Clinton did -- the patriotic feelings and genuine apprehensions of a large swath of the American electorate -- one that goes far beyond the Left’s caricature of the uneducated angry white racist working-class male and his enabling wife “clinging to their guns and religion,” as President Obama painted them in a moment of candor.

That swath extends, in reality, to millions of college-educated middle-class Americans of all colors who have heartfelt and conscience-bound concerns about such issues as abortion, the redefinition of marriage and gender, and the free exercise of their religion guaranteed by the Constitution.

Certainly, Matthews acknowledged, Trump has "exploited and distorted" those feelings for his political purposes, but that doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid.  When it comes to affection for the country and respect for traditional values, he said “the Democrats are very cold about those things and... they really miss a chance to win by simply identifying with the feelings of the country.”

Well said, but was the Left listening?

They had better, because focusing solely on denigrating Donald Trump, as Hillary Clinton found out, and as Nancy Pelosi will find out as her articles of impeachment fail in the Senate, will only strengthen the president and harden the resolve of his supporters.

Is there an “elephant whisperer” in the house? Or the senate? Or even Goldman Sachs? Your Democratic party desperately needs you.

Timothy Philen is an opinion writer, award-winning advertising creative director and author of Harper&Row/Lippincott’s You CAN Run Away From It!, a satirical indictment of American pop psychology.

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