It's 'Groundhog Day' for the Democrats

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It was after midnight in Miami in July of 1972. The Democratic National Convention was a mess. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota had won the nomination to face the incumbent president, Richard Nixon – a daunting task, as everyone knew. McGovern had ridden in on the strength of the organizing wizardry of college-age baby boomers. Now they were exhausted but eager to party, and bored by the task at hand, which the McGovernites hadn’t bothered to manage: picking a running mate.

As rock music echoed in the trash-strewn hall, delegates danced in the aisles. A dream-like assortment of ’60s figures floated by, a living gallery of Andy Warhol portraits such as poet Allen Ginsberg, Yippies founder Jerry Rubin, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who swayed to the music with his son.

Among those who got at least one vote for vice president that night: Mao, Archie Bunker, and Rubin. I remember hearing shouts for the Marx Brothers – Groucho and Karl – but they don’t appear in the final tally. Eventually the “convention” chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, who was forced to step down soon after, when it was learned that, unbeknownst to his “vetters,” he’d taken shock treatments for his clinical depression.

When the nominee finally took the stage to give his acceptance address, it was nearly 3 a.m. McGovern considered it one of the best speeches of his life, but hardly anyone in America heard it. Whatever chance McGovern had went up in smoke that late night. He eventually lost 49 states to Nixon.

I’m not saying that Iowa is that much of a disaster for the Democrats. It may be no more than an asterisk soon enough and, with any luck, merely signal the end of the role of the caucuses – way too white, way too complicated – in the process.

What I am saying is that this first moment of the campaign to unseat President Trump, coupled with the futile attempt to remove him from office through impeachment, feels like a movie we’ve seen before, and more than once. The Democrats, facing a remorseless, well-funded and imperious foe, imprison themselves in doubt, division and disorder. It can be an exhilarating ride, and great news copy. But it has led the party to repeated defeats in this era, which popular historian Rick Perlstein has aptly named “Nixonland.”  

Is this “Groundhog Day” all over again?

Network entry polls in Iowa show Democrats are united about one thing: finding the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump, whom they loathe (and more than half the country, according to polls, doesn’t think is up to the job). The party is divided less by ideology than by disagreement over how much ideology – or other matters – should be at play in the best strategy to dismantle Trump’s presidency.

The almost neurotic desire to find the right candidate – along with, or as opposed to, the right ideas – seemed to paralyze the overwhelmingly white and mostly college-educated caucus-goers of Iowa. In the absence of results, the cable networks were left to interview these tortured voters at length. Many sounded like students who were reluctant to turn in their term papers, for fear of getting a grade that would displease their parents.

It’s tempting to compare Bernie Sanders with George McGovern, but Sanders and his version of generational change are broader and deeper ideologically. The McGovern crowd mainly wanted to end the Vietnam War (along with the possibility of their serving and dying in it). Sanders wants a $100 trillion redo of American society. Is that the best way to beat Trump?

Pete Buttigieg offers himself as less interested in ideology than character, at a time when even Republican senators are admitting that Trump acts like a mob boss – one that they didn’t dare vote to oust. The 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Ind., appears to have fought Bernie to a standstill in Iowa on the strength of his brains, geniality, and a style of verbal combat that makes nasty attacks sound like the sensible complaints of a choir boy. Is that the way to beat Trump?

Perhaps the biggest winner out of Iowa is a man who did not compete there, wisely as it turns out. Mike Bloomberg, the media mogul and former New York mayor, worth at last count an estimated $61 billion, is waiting – he thinks – to bring order and discipline to the Democratic ranks.

Without results and speeches from campaign headquarters Monday night, the messaging was left to Bloomberg, who had purchased wall-to-wall ad time. His theme: Only I can defeat Trump, because I have the resources and the big-city track record to do it. Bloomberg will probably spend two or three billion dollars before it’s over.

I am guessing that it won’t be “over over” when the party meets in convention this summer in Milwaukee. There will be late nights on the floor. It’ll be agonizing good fun. But if the Democrats can’t agree on the right script to defeat Donald Trump, it could be “Groundhog Day” all over again.

Howard Fineman is an NBC News analyst, journalism lecturer, author, and was formerly chief political correspondent for Newsweek and editorial director of HuffPost.

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