Last week saw two momentous developments in the history of American democracy. First, there was the widely expected official acquittal of Donald Trump in the ongoing impeachment trial, ensuring that November’s general election will likely be the only chance for Trump to be held to account for everything he’s done. What was not quite widely expected was what happened after the acquittal, which might have given some Republicans pause about it: Trump firing two of the people who testified against him in the House. It put into stark relief how the vote effectively sent the message that Trump can act with impunity, that no matter what terrible things he does – including the numerous things he’d already done, in public, but not been impeached for – the Republican Party will never hold him to account, even when his own defense counsel argues that the President can do anything in his power to get re-elected.
But what else were the Republicans going to do? Anyone voting to even hear witnesses and documents, a mainstay of any previous impeachment trial in American history, let alone to outright convict him, would be tarred as a Republican In Name Only and effectively blackballed from the party establishment; had the Republicans moved in larger numbers to shun and convict him, his supporters would have revolted, declaring that the GOP was doing the bidding of the “deep state” and demanding every last Republican who voted to convict be thrown out and replaced with a true believer actually willing to make America great again. The Trump movement, after all, put Republicans back in control of the White House and helped them retain the Senate in 2016, against the expectations of literally everyone in Washington (arguably even Trump himself) and despite the efforts of those within the party itself to avert it. As much distaste as those in power may have for it, the GOP owes its relevance and power to the Trump movement, and arguably need Trump and his supporters more than Trump needs the rest of the GOP. To attempt to cut their ties with Trump would more likely spell the end of the GOP than of the Trump movement.
All this happened against the backdrop of the Iowa caucuses, and while the mess of the vote count dominated the headlines, what seems clear at the moment is the presence of a virtual dead heat between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg for the lead in the traditional state delegate count. While Buttigieg is becoming the favorite of the moderate wing of the party, able to tout his success in most of the counties that swung Iowa for Trump in 2016, and now seems likely to finish a strong second in today’s New Hampshire primary if not upset Sanders for the win, he still doesn’t quite have the level of across-the-board support to unify it, especially given his weakness with minorities, and the likes of Joe Biden and even Michael Bloomberg remain more popular nationally and have plenty of reason to stay in the race and try to battle him down the stretch; indeed Biden is probably still in better position than Buttigieg, even with the prospect of another disappointing finish in New Hampshire ahead (Bloomberg is weakened by his decision not to contest the early primaries and caucuses and effectively start his run on Super Tuesday, meaning he’s mostly pinning his hopes on a contested convention).
Realistically, Sanders is the only candidate that can truly be called the front-runner at the moment; FiveThirtyEight gives him a better than 50/50 shot at winning a majority of pledged delegates, and none of the other candidates even has a better chance of doing the same than that no one wins a majority of pledged delegates, likely leading to a contested convention that would fracture the Democratic Party and potentially doom the Democrats’ chances against Trump in November. It’s quite possible, nay likely, that Sanders takes New Hampshire and Nevada, winning two or even three of the four early contests, and finishes a strong second in South Carolina to Biden, which could give his campaign an air of inevitability – especially if Sen. Elizabeth Warren finishes no better than third in any of those states, trailing Sanders by significant margins in all of them and badly trailing him, Biden, and maybe even Buttigieg in the delegate count, decides she won’t be able to sufficiently rebound on Super Tuesday, and drops out and endorses Sanders, unifying the “progressive” wing of the party while the moderate camp remains very much fractured, much as Trump took advantage of a fractured Republican establishment in 2016. Even with Democratic primaries all allocating delegates proportionally without the winner-take-all contests Trump took advantage of on the Republican side, Democratic moderates are looking at the very real possibility that the best case for the party is that it nominates a self-proclaimed socialist who isn’t even normally a Democrat outside of his presidential campaigns, alienating the unaffiliated moderate voters that Democrats need to win and all but giving the election to Trump in its own way.
You know, like how Sanders would have tipped the 2016 election to Trump and Democrats needed to run the safe, moderate candidate in Hillary Clinton, and how Trump’s policies and rhetoric would alienate moderates, discredit the Republican Party, and allow Hillary to coast to victory.