It was Harold Wilson, the Labour Party’s mid-twentieth century great hope and conjurer of election victories, who first coined the phrase “a week is a long time in politics”. How America’s Democrats could use a politician of his skills and standing as they examine their last week.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. At the end of January, the Democrats had their tails up. Donald Trump was knee-deep in an impeachment process. It even looked like Senate Democrats might be able to sway wavering Republican colleagues to call witnesses to corroborate their claims that President Trump had abused his power.
Democrats were also looking forward to the an electoral cycle that they expected would unite the party, and lead to a sensible candidate emerging who could dethrone Trump in November’s elections.
Instead, as they survey the wreckage of the past two weeks, the Democrats find that they are facing an exonerated President with a Republican base galvanised by his claims that he was the victim of a political witch hunt.
Nor can any consolation be derived from early election results. The Iowa caucus descended into farce when a malfunctioning app turned a quaint eighteenth century local meeting process into a twenty-first century technological disaster. And while the New Hampshire result winnowed the field of candidates slightly, the fragmented nature of it means that Democrats have little idea yet who might be their standard bearer against Trump. The frontrunner now appears to be a 78-year-old Socialist who had a heart attack on the campaign trail last year.
In retrospect, the decision to impeach Trump was always likely to end in farce. The Democrats should have realised from the outset that the two-thirds majority of Senators that is required to convict a President was always going to be out of their reach.
The Democrats can bleat on all they like about the fact this was not a fair trial by judicial standards, with further evidence and witnesses ruled out on a party vote in the Senate. But this is an absurd argument.
Impeachment is an inherently political process, with no clear rules of engagement set out beyond basic minimum standards, meaning they are made up as the process moves along. The initial House vote was political in nature. So were the Senate ones. That isn’t justice. It’s politics.
The Democrats were hoping that enough mud would stick to Trump from the process for voters to look warily at him in the election. They gambled, and lost.
Any hopes that salvation might have emerged from Iowa and New Hampshire were cruelly dashed. The debacle of vote tallying in Iowa exposed the Democrats to ridicule from Trump and pretty much the entire world. Pete Buttigieg — the 38-year-old former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana and the first openly gay candidate in a US presidential process — narrowly won, but Bernie Sanders has challenged the result.
This matters because Sanders won Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary by a whisker from Buttigieg. And in the past four decades, no candidate who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has failed to win the eventual nomination.
The problem for the Democrats is that Sanders is unelectable. As former Goldman Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein tweeted after the result: “Sanders is just as polarizing as Trump AND he’ll ruin our economy and doesn’t care about our military.”
Asking Americans to vote for Sanders’ viewpoints is asking them to essentially repudiate the entire political and economic course of their country since the late nineteenth century. It is the equivalent of asking Britons to vote for Jeremy Corbyn last December, a candidate with views similarly alienated from mainstream British political history. And look how that turned out.
As for Buttigieg, he is widely seen as too young and inexperienced to survive the process. Certainly he is likely to be eviscerated by Trump once the primaries are over and the President launches ugly personal attacks against him.
With former favourite Joe Biden’s campaign in freefall after after finishing fourth and fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire, which will likely destroy his fundraising prospects for the next round, the search is on for someone — anyone — who might derail Trump’s prospects.
Step forward Michael Bloomberg, the former New York Mayor. Bloomberg has skipped the early campaigns to focus on flooding the country with adverts for Super Tuesday — a mass primary day in March. Could he be the Democrats’ solution? In normal times, a diminutive Jewish billionaire from a liberal, urban metropolis would stand little chance in an increasingly left-wing party which is looking warily at capitalism. But these are not normal times.
If the Democrats are to stand any chance in November, they are going to need to work out their identity crisis, and fast. Otherwise their greatest nightmare — four more years of Trump — is certain to come back and haunt them.