On the menu today: the Democratic debate in Las Vegas turns into Ragnarok; the Democratic Party’s foundation starts to develop deep cracks and worsening fissures; and contemplating the exceedingly grim finale of the Norwegian geopolitical thriller, Occupied.
For Once, I Hope You Watched the Democratic Debate
For the first time during all of these Democratic primary debates this cycle, I felt as if my voice and viewpoint were represented on stage Wednesday night. That’s not because Mike Bloomberg was present. That’s because I can’t stand most of these candidates, and last night, the candidates made clear they can’t stand each other either, either.
If you love to see Democratic candidates tearing into other Democratic candidates, the Las Vegas debate was joyous, beautiful, exciting, and wondrous. It was WrestleMania, it was Roman gladiators, it was a demolition derby. Don’t let anyone spin you; most of the candidates came out in worse shape than they entered. Tensions, frustrations, and outright disdain that simmered under the surface for almost an entire year exploded out into the open within the opening minutes. Many of the attacks carrying the not-so-hidden subtext: “My rivals are a bunch of unqualified idiots, and I cannot believe that the entire Democratic primary electorate hasn’t picked up on this yet.”
Mike Bloomberg got off to a catastrophically bad start. Michael Brendan Dougherty’s warnings were prescient, and Kevin Williamson wonders if Bloomberg’s campaign is effectively over, thanks to a “beyond incompetent” response to an entirely predictable series of questions about how he treated women who worked for him and his use of non-disclosure agreements.
Bloomberg LP has faced nearly 40 discrimination and harassment suits from 64 employees over the past two decades, with most of them accusing Bloomberg of “creating a culture of sexual harassment and degradation.”
Bloomberg’s response last night was, “none of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.” You don’t get nearly 40 lawsuits from 64 employees over a mere bad joke.
The former mayor got a little better as the night went on and mostly bad debate performances can be wiped away with another $400 million or so in television ads. But the bottom line of last night is that Bloomberg is what his critics charge: a billionaire who’s been so used to running everything around him for so long that he freezes when someone challenges him and gets in his face. On top of that, he’s a cold fish. He radiates the warmth and empathy of the head of a DMV office. Bloomberg’s convinced he never did anything wrong regarding any of his female employees, and he can’t understand why anyone would think otherwise.
If you believe in such things, it’s as if fate, the universe, or the Gods of Politics decided to punish the Democrats yet again for the way they laughed at the GOP’s inability to stop Trump in the spring of 2016. The Democrats find themselves in a similar situation as the Republicans were four years ago: A populist septuagenarian, who only formally joined the party a few years ago, has jumped to an early lead, has a loyal base of diehard supporters, and is set to head into the convention with the most delegates because of the apportionment rules. The upstart disdains the party’s previous stances and leaders, promises to turn the country upside down, and casually alienates some of the party’s longtime supporters. But the establishment can’t unite behind one alternative candidate, risks a colossal fight at the convention, and is probably going to end up nominating someone at odds with its previous policies and values.
Instead of uniting quickly, the Democrats appear set to spend the next three or four months watching Sanders and Bloomberg pound the snot out of each other in a nasty, bitter, substantive, consequential, resource-devouring, personal fight.
This Democratic primary could not have turned out any better for President Trump. The candidate who repeatedly polled best against Trump, Joe Biden, is reduced to an afterthought. Trump’s opponent is likely to be an old white man that some Democratic women contend is sexist and who faces lingering problems of motivating African-American voters.
The Cracks in the Democratic Party Foundation Can’t Be Easily Spackled Over Anymore
In four of the past seven presidential elections, the Democrats lucked out and found themselves lining up behind a once-in-a-generation political talent. Whatever you think of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both men were enormously skilled orators, could thrill or at least satisfy every major faction in the party, and provided enough of a blank slate so that both centrists and progressives could believe he was “one of us.” In two of the three presidential elections that didn’t feature Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, they nominated Clinton’s running mate in Al Gore and his wife in Hillary Clinton. (Notice that the one time that Democrats nominated someone with no particularly strong connection to either Clinton or Obama — John Kerry — they lost the popular vote.)
Once-in-a-generation political talents can spackle over a lot of deep cracks in a party. On paper, the Democratic Party shouldn’t function; the environmental agenda contradicts the goals of big labor, racial minorities and the white working class generate their own friction against each other, big-city machine politicians are anathema to the good-government reformers. Too many wine-cave big donors look down upon the working-class and rural communities as inherently less worthy in a meritocratic system. The cultural radicals freak out the soccer moms. The tech bros think they’re the innovative geniuses building the road to the progressive future, but much of the rest of the party sees them as arrogant and unaccountable excesses of capitalism.
Without a once-in-a-generation political talent to unite the party’s factions . . . you end up with a primary such as this one. Democrats have to choose from a list of deeply flawed options, and some faction is going to be left so disappointed, they will be, at minimum, not all that motivated in the general election. Some may leave the party entirely. You may recall former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz declaring, “Bernie Sanders, who three years ago had fringe ideas, is now the poster child for the American people with regard to the Democratic Party . . . The Democratic Party left me, I didn’t leave them.” There are a lot of business leaders who, because they’re pro-choice, buy solar panels, and are comfortable with higher income taxes, think of themselves as Democrats. Not all of them will stay in the party if Sanders is the nominee.
If Bloomberg is the nominee, many Sanders supporters will not lift a finger to help him. Last night, Warren asked after the debate, “How can we say we want to trade our arrogant billionaire for your arrogant billionaire? Especially when this is a man who has treated women so badly. You know, can we please keep in mind how important women have finally — we have been acknowledged to be important in electing our candidates? You just can’t lead with a guy who’s got this kind of history.”
The Grim Ending of Occupied and the Hard Lessons Europe Doesn’t Want to Learn
I finally had time to finish the third and final season of Occupied, which I describe as Norway’s version of 24, set in a near-future where the United States departed NATO and Europe gradually realizes it has little or no leverage against an increasingly aggressive Russia. This was always a heavy and intermittently dark show, with no promises of smooth or happy endings, but the finale of Occupied makes the divorce drama Marriage Story look like a lighthearted comedy.
I can see why the creative team chose to end the series the way it did, but man, what a downer. The message is unmistakable: Russia’s occupation of Norway, even seemingly reversed, has done irreparable damage to all of the characters, and those who didn’t die will spend the rest of their days physically, psychologically, and emotionally broken. For two seasons and change, Occupied excelled in painting portraits of characters who wanted to do the right thing, but who found themselves making larger and larger moral compromises in extreme and desperate situations. But by the middle of season three, everyone’s become almost unrecognizable morally. The prime minister, Jesper Berg, accidentally sets off a vicious, violent campaign of Norwegians throwing acid in the faces of other citizens they deemed collaborators or war profiteers. He also basically shrugs at an environmentalist group blowing up a natural-gas plant and killing lots of people. The old defense minister, Harald Vold, can’t even bring himself to denounce the acid attacks. The single mom restaurateur who gives us the perspective of the average citizen, Bente Norum, has gradually slid from conflicted noncombatant to a willing tool of Russian intelligence.
Every major character ends the show defeated. The new Norwegian prime minster is compromised by the Russians. The European gay rights group “Love Without Limits” is secretly gathering compromising material on closeted politicians on behalf of Moscow. Berg has become an environmentalist cyberterrorist. Hans Martin, the show’s version of Jack Bauer, kills himself to protect his family, and his wife Hilde and daughter have fled to Washington, where the U.S. government doesn’t seem to care about any of this. Vold apparently sold out to the Russians at some point, and either committed suicide or was murdered on Berg’s orders. Bente’s probably never getting out of Russia or seeing her daughter again. Even the Russian villains get their comeuppance in wince-inducing ways; Irina’s poisoned lover doesn’t appear likely to recover anytime soon, she’s destined to live as a virtual slave to the FSB, and Gosev gets whacked by his Russian superiors based upon lies from Bente.
Even the climatic cyberattack on Moscow illuminates an unnerving point: A bunch of freelance hackers angry about carbon emissions punish the Russians far more effectively than any of the European powers or Norwegian government could. One of Berg’s closing lines is, “don’t wait for democracy to save the world.” The implication is that democracy cannot save the world; it certainly couldn’t save Norway when it counted.
A few years ago, I called Occupied “the most inadvertently conservative show in a long time . . . A good portion of Occupied portrays Norway’s progressive, sophisticated, well-educated political class slowly realizing that no one is coming to rescue them.” One of my favorite lines came from Berg as he casually dismissed a Green Party underling’s ability to negotiate with the Russians, saying something such as, “The Russians tried to walk all over me, they’ll definitely walk all over you.” The show is the European Left’s middle-of-the-night anxiety attack, a terrified recognition that they’ve miscalculated how the world works and left themselves helpless in the face of existential threats.
Occupied began as a thought experiment that Europe really needed to have: How well can modern European “soft power” counter old-fashioned military and authoritarian “hard power”? The show offered viewers the unsettling answer that it can’t. Maybe the creators became uncomfortable with their own conclusions. By the end of season three, it’s fair to wonder if modern Norway is worth saving, as Norwegian citizens seem like easily manipulated violent rage monkeys, itching to turn on each other and naively believing that the threat from Russia has passed. European progressive democracy failed; the suggestion that American-style center-right democracy could succeed might have been too much for its international audience to handle.
ADDENDUM: Over at TurnOnTheJets.com, I talk about my preferred offseason strategy for the team with Scott Mason. The NFL Scouting Combine is February 24, and free agency begins March 18.