Going for Broke(r)

Who's afraid of a brokered convention?

THE LAST TIME a presidential convention opened without a pre-ordained nominee, in 1984, it led to a disaster of epic proportions. Walter Mondale walked in the door a few delegates short, but Democratic superdelegates quickly made him the nominee. He went on to win a paltry 13—yes, thirteen—electoral votes that November en route to the greatest general-election ass-kicking in modern times. As Dennis Miller joked, back when he was still funny, “Mondale won two states. That’s only two states more than I won, and I didn’t even run.”

The two instances before that were not much better. In 1980, Jimmy Carter went into the convention facing an insurgency from Ted Kennedy. In 1972, George McGovern—the Bernie Sanders of his era—did not acquire the necessary delegates until a procedural change was made at the convention. Carter and McGovern, like Mondale, were crushed in the general, winning just 49 and 17 total electoral votes, respectively.

The last time the Democrats had an actual brokered convention was back in 1952, twenty years before I was born. Adlai Stevenson, the eventual nominee, got absolutely pasted in the general, winning just 89 electoral votes. And who could forget the convention debacle of 1924, when party heavyweights Al Smith and William McAdoo lost the nomination to a “dark horse” named John Davis—on the hundred-and-third ballot! That was a joke; I’d never heard of Davis until I started writing this piece. So it should come as no surprise that he was spanked that November.

In short, the last hundred years of history suggest that brokered conventions, or even near-brokered ones, are a bad idea. But here’s the thing: Famous Davis ran against the incumbent, Calvin Coolidge, then presiding over one of the greatest economic booms in history. Stevenson’s opponent was Dwight D. Eisenhower, last seen winning World War Fucking Two (could you imagine if Ike ran today?) And Carter and Mondale both squared off against one of the most popular politicians in American history, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Is the brokered or near-brokered convention really to blame in any of these cases? Even if Democrats had coalesced a year ahead of time, these were all milquetoast candidates, facing extremely popular rivals. They were going down in flames regardless of how smoothly the convention played out.

None of this has any bearing on what’s happening now. The circumstances of the 2020 election have no historical precedent. Donald John Trump is a money launderer for the Russian mob. He is clearly, incontrovertibly corrupt. He has been impeached once, got off because of a patently unfair sham of a Senate trial, and may still be impeached again. He’s increasingly desperate and paranoid, and his brain is deteriorating. He is mean-spirited and inept, and most people are sick to death of him. And he is now facing the greatest challenge of his presidency: a global pandemic, which his brain is too addled to even understand—and which will likely tank his beloved stock market for the rest of his time in office. As the historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote in last night’s Letters from an American, “[t]he coronavirus and the subsequent selling-off in the stock market of the last several days reveals what feels to me like an endpoint of a political era.” Consider: Trump may head into November with a major health crisis beyond his control, a cratering economy, and another, even stronger impeachment inquiry in full flower. It’s not inconceivable that he dumps Mike Pence and replaces him on the ticket with Ivanka. That’s our opponent. Not Reagan, not Ike: the selfish prick who got mad at Canada for editing out his cameo in Home Alone 2. A brokered convention means we lose? Really? The Democrats convene in Milwaukee in July. Four months of relentless, unified campaigning against this incumbent, under these circumstances, is plenty.

Bernie Sanders may well come to Milwaukee with a plurality of delegates; he will likely not leave Milwaukee with the nomination. He is right that the Democratic establishment does not like him—and why should it? He’s not a Democrat, he’s a divisive candidate, and, however much the Berners may yowl, a 78-year-old socialist recent heart attack victim with a yen for leftist dictators and a contempt for capitalism ain’t winning the general, no matter how much free shit he promises. That means that the other candidates—you know, the actual Democrats—will have to join forces to beat him. How they do so will be fascinating to watch. And that’s what would happen at a brokered convention. The horse-trading will be exciting. Media types will have their heads explode trying to formulate their insipid hot takes; poor Chris Cillizza may short-circuit completely. It will be like the Avengers assembling (with Joe Biden cast as the elderly Captain America).

Speaking of which: After tomorrow, Biden will be right back in the race. He may well have the most delegates heading into July. But he won’t have the majority, either. Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer will all have delegates at their command. And Mike Bloomberg looms, with his limitless campaign funding and his knack for hiring smart, talented people.

Maybe this ends with a Biden-Kamala Harris ticket, with Klobuchar promised State; Mayor Pete, Defense; and Warren, Justice. Or maybe—and there was a split-screen during the last debate when I had this flash—it’s Bloomberg-Klobuchar, with Buttigieg and Warren somehow involved. (It could also end with Sanders-Warren, I suppose, which is so Mondale-Ferraro 2.0 it’s uncanny). Concessions will have to be made to Sanders, although I’m not sure what Bernie might actually demand; his lifelong role is gadfly, after all. Perhaps we can let him break up Deutsche Bank?

And yes, devotees of one candidate or another will have to move on if and when their candidate concedes. That’s the nature of politics. I wanted, and still want, Kamala Harris atop the ticket, but I’m not going to ignore the process because she suspended her campaign. Although there will be defections among the more self-righteous “bros,” I expect most Bernie voters, and Warren voters, and Pete voters, will “vote blue no matter who.” Certainly said bros have been demanding that we non-Berners pledge to do so.

I’ve heard the argument that a brokered convention is not “democratic.” But how is a regular convention, which tends to feel more like a coronation, a pinnacle of democracy exactly? A brokered convention would be like Game Seven of a World Series. Anything can happen. That’s what would make it so compelling—and will ultimately make it so successful. Only by teaming up to take down Trump can the united Democrats make America great again.