‘We’re  fucked,’ my wife said, ‘truly and utterly fucked. None of these clowns can beat Trump.’ It had been a hideous 36 hours: the Iowa caucuses were a debacle, Trump – Père Ubu brought to life – had been acquitted by the Senate of impeachable crimes, delivered a rousing, if thoroughly counterfactual, State of the Union address, and had the highest approval rating in recent memory in a new poll. Meanwhile, the economy is booming, Iran has chosen not to strike back, or not quite yet, and North Korea isn’t making menacing noises. ‘America is back!’ Ubu brayed. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, and our Congresswoman, theatrically tore up her copy of Ubu’s speech.

Even before the Iowa vote was finalised, it was clear that Biden’s performance was disastrous. We’d thought that a Biden-Klobuchar ticket would stand the best chance, if a slender one, of getting rid of Ubu once and for all, but it seemed that Biden was thought well past his sell by date and a bit fuddle-headed. ‘How did we find ourselves at this pass?’ my wife sobbed. ‘It’s over!’ When I turned on the computer I discovered that much of the commentariat felt the same. James Carville, Bill Clinton’s former attack dog, was behaving as if his own pet dog had just been run over by a bread truck.

It got worse. Why are Republican operatives in South Carolina telling registered Republicans, who are allowed to vote in the state’s Democratic primary on 29 February, to vote for Bernie Sanders? Why does Ubu fall over himself praising Bernie and defending him from attacks? Maybe because Ubu desperately wants his opponent in November to be the 78-year-old Jewish socialist from Vermont who, when excited, flaps his arms like a very large bird struggling to get aloft and whose rhetorical manner is that of an excessively enthusiastic civics teacher at a Brooklyn junior high in 1965. The millennials are mad about him.

Am I suggesting that Sanders hasn’t a snowball in hell’s chance of beating Ubu? I am indeed. Nor does Pete Buttigieg, the articulate former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is green as a corn husk. Nor does the former Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, who, like Sanders, is far to the left of American mainstream voters and almost certainly toast after doing surprisingly badly in New Hampshire. And good old Joe Six-Pack? I actually like Biden. He’s an Irish-American pol of an earlier vintage and relatively harmless. He goes down well with white blue-collar voters and African-Americans. But Iowa and New Hampshire have wounded him badly and I wonder if he can now win in South Carolina, where he was heavily favoured. I like Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, best of all. She clearly won the TV debate in New Hampshire and came third in the primary, not far behind Sanders and Buttigieg. She gave a triumphant speech afterwards to her campaign workers and admirers, a compilation of her greatest hits from the debate, which convinced me that she’s the best chance the Democrats have. But she’s unlikely to get a bump in Nevada and South Carolina, and unless she comes up with a hundred million dollars or so in a hurry, she won’t survive Super Tuesday, when 14 states and registered Democrats abroad vote. She has more than a bit of steel in her, like Hillary, but projects more warmth. Of course, this warmth is questionable at best. Political candidates at this level are almost all pathologically ambitious and prepared to do or say anything or run over anyone to advance their fortunes. Shortly after she announced her candidacy, several of Senator Klobuchar’s former staff described her as a monstrous boss, abusive and impossibly demanding.

This leaves us with Michael Bloomberg, a former general partner at Salomon Brothers investment bank who went on to set up Bloomberg L.P., whose main business is as a financial services company with 325,000 subscribers paying an annual fee of $24,000. He is a three-term mayor of New York, easily the best mayor of the city in my lifetime, and one of America’s biggest philanthropists. Bloomberg is spending an unprecedented amount of his own money (he’s worth at least sixty billion dollars) to saturate the airwaves, as he prepares to enter the race before Super Tuesday. The winner of these primaries will almost certainly become the Democratic nominee, if there is a clear winner.

Bloomberg has maintained an Olympian distance from the retail politics of local diners and church basements in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. He didn’t participate in any of the debates until a sudden surge in his poll numbers drew him onto the stage in Nevada. He seemed entirely unprepared for the assault and his campaign took a serious blow. Will his strategy – essentially, buying the nomination – work? It’s already doing so: he’s moved up the polls to second or third position among the Democratic nominees. He’s an intelligent, accomplished, tough-minded candidate, with a great deal of executive experience. The same could have been said of Hillary Clinton, but Bloomberg doesn’t have the same baggage. He does, however, carry another sort of baggage. The American voter likes candidates who are male, white, Christian, tall, trim, affable and telegenic (Ubu is of course an outlier, being fat, with an outlandish orange coiffure and a singularly repulsive personality). Bloomberg is 78, five foot six, Jewish, a billionaire, with a personality that is drab at best, and who speaks with a nasal drone. In one of the TV ads with which we’re currently being carpetbombed he wears a leather flight jacket which makes him look as ridiculous as the former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis did when he poked his helmeted head out of a tank in another TV ad many years ago. Ubu calls his former chum ‘Mini Mike’. Ubu, who used to identify as a Democrat, was great chums with the Clintons then too.

Bloomberg isn’t popular with African-American voters, particularly women, who have to turn out in large numbers for the Democrats to win. They don’t like the stop and search policy Bloomberg instituted while mayor of New York City, which almost exclusively targeted people of colour. He’s desperately trying to put this behind him, but that has been more difficult since an audio tape from 2015 was leaked in which he defends that policy, a tape that can easily be construed as racist, largely because it is.

Ubu at present seems invincible. Even if a video emerged of him and Putin getting handsy on a Romanov-era sofa, the public is now so inured to his outrageous behaviour that his approval rating wouldn’t budge. Even if he lost the election by a wide margin, which seems inconceivable, he wouldn’t go away any time soon. He would claim voter fraud and outside interference, and the Supreme Court, now stocked with right-wing stooges, the Barr-led Justice Department and the Senate would fall into line. It seems unlikely, right now, that any of this will be necessary. Brace yourselves: Ubu Unchained is coming soon to a theatre near you.

21 February

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Vol. 42 No. 6 · 19 March 2020

August Kleinzahler, in his reflections on the Democratic primary, bewails the party’s prospects come November (LRB, 5 March). Like many older liberals, Kleinzahler believes that Bernie Sanders – who is currently poised to seize the nomination – cannot win the presidential election. The evidence suggests otherwise. In most recent polls, Sanders performs as well as or better than the other Democratic candidates, nationally and in swing states. The difficulties he would face – the disenfranchisement of African American and Latino voters, the power of the incumbency, the belligerence of the right-wing media, not to mention the sheer unpopularity of the Democratic Party itself – would be faced by whichever candidate emerges from the preliminary contests.

But then the argument against Sanders has never really been about whether he could win, even when it is framed that way. Many are hostile to him, as Kleinzahler is, out of old-fashioned ideological disagreement. Kleinzahler thinks ‘we’re fucked’ because ‘the economy is booming,’ which makes it difficult to mount a credible argument that the country needs an alternative to Trump. Kleinzahler’s view of things, that is, is the same as the GOP’s. And it is wrong. For many Americans, the economy is not great. The stock market may be booming, but real wages haven’t budged. Millions are uninsured, underemployed, buried beneath mountains of debt. Young people are mad for Sanders because his criticisms of Trump are about substance rather than style. The biggest obstacle to left-wing politics at the present time are Bernie’s well-meaning but short-sighted peers.

Matt Rickard
New York

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