The Electability Spin Machine

Sanders has fought Clinton to a virtual draw in Iowa — it's time to crank up the spin machine

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton all but tied in the Iowa Caucuses Monday night. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty, Win McNamee/Getty

Here's where the spin begins.

Ordinarily you would think math would settle the issue of who won or did not win an election, but that's not the country we live in. The spin started months ago, and will continue forever. Barack Obama didn't win 2012: That RINO Romney surrendered it to him. And he didn't win 2008: The media didn't vet him, and George W. Bush's big-government conservatism handed half the country over while the New Black Panther Party and ACORN stole the rest.

Even now some buzz-cut Nixon die-hard gasping his last breath in a hospice named Shady Palms Death Quonset is probably still raging against the Daley machine for delivering 1960 to Kennedy. Or against that ghostwritten Profiles in Courage. Or Kennedy's father's money. Or the media, who televised that famous debate.

So naturally for the rest of the week we will learn that nobody who lost actually lost, and that all the winners are frauds. Campaign strategists have to justify where all that money went, and those in the media who prognosticate into lifelong panel-show sinecures have to course-correct reality when it gets in the way of a good story. And as for the candidates — if we absolutely must drag them into this — they have to persuade voters and donors that they haven't wasted their time, energy and money.

First up was the perpetual load billed as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who emerged at his headquarters to announce, "So this is the moment they said would never happen." Well, no. He was polling in third place, and that's where he finished. Apparently that's enough for victory.

He went on:

"For months, for months they told us we had no chance. For months they told us because we offer too much optimism in a time of anger, we had no chance. For months they told us because we didn't have the right endorsements or the right political connections, we had no chance.... But tonight, tonight here in Iowa, the people of this great state have sent a very clear message."

Once again, he came in third, which is where the Real Clear Politics average has had him ever since Ben Carson's numbers started nosediving around mid-December.

What Rubio was really saying — through the perpetual vocal quaver of alternately traumatized patriotic horror or beatific patriotic awe he has sported during every public speech since 2010 — was that he needed to repudiate the Cruz/Trump argument that this was a two-man race and prove that a third person was involved. But, "I showed 'em all by coming in third!" isn't much of a sales pitch.

Not that the PR wing of the Republican Party hasn't been making it. Fox News spent the evening pumping up Rubio's surging numbers in a recent Quinnipiac poll to prove that the ethnic telegenic candidate situated firmly between the establishment and the Tea Party wing is just as prime for an "inevitable" breakout as he has been every week since around August 4, when Donald Trump started eating his (and everyone else's) lunch.

The Rubio team's calculus is that, once other "establishment lane" candidates drop out, either humiliated by Iowa or New Hampshire, all the reasonable conservatives who hate black people, Muslims and Latino immigrants but who don't want to go full neofascist will get on the bandwagon. And that's a fine argument, but it's nothing close to inevitable. People enjoy backing winners (there's a reason why so many people still hold betting stubs for Secretariat at the Belmont), so why trade up for Rubio when you can go higher and pick one of the other two guys?

Chamber of Commerce types have no reason not to like Trump, apart from "electability," which is just as much a problem with a Rubio campaign that thinks "take a second job with Uber" is a solution to income inequality, is just as hardline anti-immigrant, and sounds increasingly determined to go full neocon by peppering speeches with casual calls to start conflicts with roughly two billion people. As for the culture-war types, why not pick Cruz? He and Rubio keep sounding the same War on Christianity notes, and if anything the ferocious pettiness of their attacks amounts to two guys trying not to sound identical. The only concrete way that Rubio proves an alternative to either of the frontrunners depends not on policy but on whether voters already personally hate those frontrunners.

Meanwhile, if overnight media Twitter is any indicator, the "Donald Trump Is a Loser" narrative is already in full swing. It's fine; it's funny, and needling anyone who overreacts to negativity as much as Trump does is a great pastime. There's just no way to argue that this is any more inevitable than Rubio's ascendance.

The argument goes something like this: Donald Trump says he will win all the time, so if he loses once, nobody will vote for him now, and they'll all like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. It kind of makes sense, and that would be a great line of reasoning in a party that didn't make so little sense that it made Donald Trump its frontrunner for five months, despite the horrible things he says and all the ways in which he's repeatedly displayed a supposedly fatal heterodoxy.

You can find counterarguments without trying too hard. For one thing, Trump has been running a national-media campaign, which is a disadvantage in caucus states like Iowa, where he only dedicated serious attention for the last couple weeks. Meanwhile, Cruz flung everything at Iowa for months on end and still won by only 4.4 points, which might not mean much in light of Trump's absence of a ground game. Trump currently holds a large lead in New Hampshire, where his style of campaign and the easier voting process can pay off, and then we move to South Carolina, where he has a 16-point lead. And while it's late to start an operation from scratch, who's to say he doesn't throw a bunch of money at the problem and make a more serious get-out-the-vote effort now that he's been beaten once?

All of this is excellent spin. Wonderful, fantastic spin. Beautiful, luxurious spin. Trump has a spin guy, he's very very good. 

But if you want maximal spin, just raw, thick tar spin, look to the Democratic Party and a legion of electability-policing flunkies.

What Bernie Sanders did Monday night was incredible. Until very recently, even a good showing would have sufficed to confirm his candidacy's seriousness, and any characterization of his loss as critical merely demonstrates how rapidly the goalposts can be moved when narratives need to be upheld. 

At the start of last May, he was 54 points behind in Iowa to Hillary Clinton, a frontrunner with the most open path to the eventual nomination in primary history. Sanders is a cranky old Jewish man from a tiny state and proudly considers himself a socialist, which in the rarified air of Beltway Centrism and in the swamp-gas of an America that still thinks the Cold War can be lost at any moment is somehow a more revolting word than "pederast."

With the exception of a few pro-Biden holdouts, almost the entirety of the Democratic Party establishment and the big money lined up behind his opponent, including veteran organizers and advisors. The Democratic Party chair scheduled a tiny number of debates on broadcast evenings so hostile to reaching a mass audience that their only purpose must have been minimizing exposing the electorate to any names that aren't Hillary Clinton's. Against this apparatus, Sanders decided to refuse to use super PAC money.

Meanwhile, every dead-eyed hack angling for a gig taking "Socks II" for walkies in the new Clinton administration has responded to Sanders' rising popularity with the Clinton-endorsement equivalent of Marge Simpson holding up her excised frontal lobe in a jar and groaning, "It's bliiiiiiiiiiiissssss."

You have Ezra Klein really taking it to some bozo named Ezra Klein over Sanders' health care plan. Along with assists from The Atlantic and The New RepublicSalon has gone balls-to-the-wall stupid peddling a mythic creature named the Bernie Bro whose existence is about as well documented as Prester John's

The most substantial claim is that Bernie Sanders has some fans on the Internet who are assholes. Which puts him in exclusive company with literally everything. The same thinkfluencers who argue that Bernie Sanders needs to take personal responsibility for people he's never met being rude to journalists on the Internet (who are already berated and ridiculed by fans of everything else) are also filling column inches by doing the human-dignity equivalent of reaching a whole arm through a buzzing garbage disposal to latch onto yet another slime-slicked take festering in the U-bend and explaining why Hillary Clinton does not need to explain anything further. She doesn't need to justify that Iraq War vote again, or the destabilization of Libya, or that desire to go hog wild in Syria, or that 1990s support for welfare reform that hit women hardest, or those 1990s tough-on-crime policies she endorsed along with private prisons, or those speaking fees at Goldman Sachs or that opposition to reinstating Glass-Steagall. 

Against this habitual sycophancy, you have a 24-hour news and legacy media structure that has consistently pushed the "conventional wisdom says that a socialist like Bernie Sanders can't win" line to hammer home the message that Bernie Sanders can't win underneath a veneer of objectivity. It's not advocacy, after all, if you're only saying what everybody thinks. Even if your job is literally to help shape how everybody thinks.

Against all that, Bernie Sanders fighting Clinton to an essential draw in a state in which his opponent held a huge advantage in terms of local political operators and influencers is nothing short of extraordinary. Which, combined with Sanders' 18-point lead in New Hampshire, means it's time to crank up the RPMs on the spin cycle fast enough to rip apart space-time.

You will hear that Sanders can't win South Carolina because black voters love Hillary Clinton, without the qualifier that black voters largely don't know who Bernie Sanders is. You will hear the Clinton team again attack universal health care from the right, scaremongering about taxes while ignoring the savings people would enjoy from no longer paying health insurance premiums. You will hear Chelsea Clinton or some other mouthpiece again claim that Bernie Sanders — the guy who wants to give Medicare to everybody — is going to take away everybody's health care. 

You will see Clinton wrap herself in the mantle of Obama's legacy not only to appeal to black voters but to obfuscate her record with that community. Embracing Obama obscures her support for her husband's welfare reform and tough-on-crime policies that harmed that community. It obscures that his first presidential bid is remembered for a "Sister Souljah moment" that amounted to a repudiation of Jesse Jackson, literally sitting next to him on the dais, and a reassurance of the white audience "right there in [that] room" that they were good white people. And it helps to wipe the memory of Bill embarrassing himself in front of the black community in 2008 while Hillary herself challenged Barack Obama's electability because white people wouldn't vote for him.

This isn't just another leg in the 44-year-old Democratic-hack sprint away from McGovern suddenly made more frantic by Bernie Sanders' visage haunting them from the left, like George returned to life to remind them of their sins. This is a long low road stretching toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, un-illuminated by any purpose greater than the tautological — that we use electability to win elections, that we win elections by being electable, that we cannot fail to be victorious, that we must be victorious for we cannot fail. 

This is the dim path where a career pro-gay-rights feminist looms as a misogynist and an enemy to identity politics because some people with egg avatars sent some tweets. Where a candidate who personally earned millions in speeches and whose campaigns were significantly funded by Wall Street firms that nearly broke the world is equivalent to the candidate whose whole campaign opposes them because, apparently, he took money from a nurses' union. Where a legitimate candidate of the working class will be hammered over and over in an authenticity battle with a campaign that weekly releases some "How do you do, fellow kids?" embarrassment and whose Instagram manager is a woman with her own HBO series. Where the real progressive candidate has already pledged not to raise any middle-class taxes and once called people on welfare deadbeats.

This is the claustrophobic world of small meaning that is born when everyone knows the only idea you have to aspire to is the reaffirmation that the Republicans are worse. It's the logic that says that nothing we do to each other in this room — that nothing we do anywhere — matters when we know there's a monster behind the door. It is a mean and interminable partnership with nihilism that will get much worse before it gets better, and no one will blame you if you fill your pockets with rocks and walk into the sea.