Today’s column started off as a text I received, which asked a simple question. With U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet now out of the presidential race, to whom should my correspondent send his campaign donations? I texted back that there was no easy and obvious answer.
You see, two things happened this last week that may well signal the gathering of storm clouds on the political horizon for the Democratic Party and Colorado, and the nation as a whole. The first event was the aforementioned Bennet campaign ending, and the second was the weaponization of the Department of Justice (DOJ) by President Trump, a development that should horrify folks across the political spectrum, but likely won’t.
Which, of course, brings memories of 1972 back to my mind.
In that election year long ago, I was a kid in junior high in Michigan, and because I’ve always been a political nerd, I was already involved in the presidential campaign. My first choice for president had dropped out, and the Democrats nominated George McGovern. I worked hard for that nominee, who was quite liberal, at least for that time, and who was also a legitimate WWII war hero, with many combat missions under his aviator belt. But as we know, McGovern may have been the more honorable of the two men running for the White House that year, but Nixon crushed him in the general election in an overwhelming landslide. The lesson seared into the minds of many Democrats that year was that the party should never nominate someone truly out of step with the American people, no matter how noble and idealistic it may feel at the moment. But not all Democrats got the message, and 2020 is shaping up to, quite possibly, be the election year in which the Dems repeat the folly of 1972, with even worse results, cough…Bernie…cough…
Following his re-election in the crime-tainted election in '72, Nixon became even more corrupt, turning his DOJ into a personal revenge machine. If you are of a certain age, you may remember his famous “enemies list” that was leaked to the public. We know how that story turned out, with Nixon’s attorney general going to jail and Nixon himself resigning in the face of impeachment.
Today, things are worse.
Back in 2017, Trump’s DOJ announced that presidential tweets were, in fact, “official statements” from the president. And so, no one should be surprised when a Trump tweet earlier this week attacked the sentencing recommendation of the DOJ regarding how many years long-time Trump friend and adviser Roger Stone should spend in jail, after being found guilty on all charges. You may recall the president’s 2 a.m. tweet attacking the recommendation and stating, “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Given those words, which sound very much like a directive, the senior leadership of the DOJ intervened, and in a move that shocked the legal community, renounced the sentencing memo written by the prosecutors involved. Remarkably, Trump then tweeted his praise of Attorney General Bill Barr for “taking control” of the case. The line between the political leadership at the top of the DOJ and the career prosecutors at the lower levels of DOJ was smashed to bits, and politics trickled all the way down, a tough situation given the supposed neutrality toward politics required in the DOJ’s dispensing of, well, justice.
This action resulted in all four federal (career, not political) prosecutors resigning from the case. Thus, the president of the United States has turned the DOJ into a personal “justice” machine for his own ends to protect his friends and to punish those whom he feels are his enemies. Everyone, even Republicans, should be troubled by these actions. If Trump doesn’t worry you, will you be equally sanguine if a Democratic president wields the same powers after a future election?
Which brings me, finally, back to 2020 and the question of whether the Democratic Party will yet again shoot itself in the foot. I’ve previously written about Colorado as the true bellwether state for presidential politics. For example, Michael Bennet — my old boss — has twice won election to the Senate here, as a moderate and responsible grownup. But he couldn’t win in New Hampshire, a state that may have the first-in-the-nation primary but is not much like the rest of the nation demographically. Bennet was thought of by a number of politically savvy people to be the Dems' best shot at winning in November, and therefore his poor showing should be a clue that New Hampshire’s winner might not be the best nominee nationally.
While the word “socialist” has been demonized and, frankly, weaponized, by the GOP, thoughtful folks understand that we like some aspects of socialism, like, say, fire departments. That said, any candidate who self-identifies as a “Democratic socialist” is asking for misunderstandings, confusion, and some really nasty negative ads. Recall, please, that national polls mean nothing. Only the 51 (counting D.C.) state races matter. Bernie is the George McGovern of 2020 — well intended with some good ideas, but likely doomed from the start.
So, what’s the Dem party to do?
That answer must await my next column, when I tell you about my bus ride with Amy Klobuchar.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.