Frank Bruni: Why the Democrats are headed for disaster

"Win, lose or draw, there's no legitimacy in America anymore," writes Frank Bruni. (Ben Wiseman/The New York Times) --

I’ll let you in on a little secret about media coverage of prime-time political debates: What happens in the first half, even the first quarter, gets much more attention than what happens as the night drags on.

We all have deadlines bearing down on us and must produce our stories immediately after the debate’s end, so we start formulating thoughts and fashioning sentences before then. If there are fireworks early in the event, we say a cheer of gratitude and let them light up our commentary. So it was with Mike Bloomberg’s miserable performance in Las Vegas. He established his awfulness right off the bat. We ran with it. I know I did.

But in the case of this debate, what happened at the bitter end was probably most meaningful. All six candidates onstage were asked to envision a situation — utterly plausible this year — in which none of them went into the Democratic convention in Milwaukee in July with a majority of pledged delegates and, therefore, an unequivocal claim to the nomination. Should the politician with a plurality of delegates be the nominee?

Only Bernie Sanders, who currently has the best shot at being that person, said yes. The others said no. That would mean a brokered convention, in which the votes of uncommitted “superdelegates” or alliances formed among certain candidates are necessary to put someone over the top. And it would be a nightmare scenario for the Democratic Party, which is deep into a bad dream already, because it would invite further cynicism, second-guessing, cries of illegitimacy and irresolution in a country that’s paralyzed by all of that.

Something unsettling is going on in American politics — in America, period — and the chaotic Democratic race exemplifies it. The rules are all blurry. The processes are all suspect. Or at least they’re seen that way, so more and more judgments are up for debate and more and more defeats are prone to dispute. President Donald Trump is a prime player in this, but it didn’t start with him and isn’t confined to him. He’s exploiting and accelerating a crisis of faith in traditions and institutions, not causing it. He’s improvising, and he’s hardly alone.

Everywhere I look: incipient or latent pandemonium. The Iowa caucuses were a mess that motivated some candidates to press self-aggrandizing grievances, and there are concerns that the Nevada caucuses are headed for the same fate. Bloomberg’s rivals argue (understandably) that he’s using his billions to game the system and pervert the whole shebang. And in a reprise of four years ago, Sanders’ supporters fume that the media, the Democratic National Committee and other supposed pillars of the establishment are conspiring against him in some underhanded, corrupt way. I’m no soothsayer, but I foresee intensifying quarrels over whether whoever is leading the field deserves to be in that position and whether his or her competitors got a raw deal.

It’s 2016 all over again, except maybe worse. Back then both Sanders and Trump, who was braced to lose, insisted that the process was rigged. Sanders’ supporters questioned the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton’s victory in the Democratic primary before Clinton’s supporters questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s victory in the general election. There were good reasons all around, but it was striking nonetheless how fervently the disappointed rejected the denouement.

It was also corrosive. I’m not recommending a pliant surrender to injustice, but I see more value in plotting carefully for the next fight than in raging boundlessly over the last one. At some point, doesn’t everyone have to move on?

Not anymore. In Washington, there’s the prospect of impeachment beyond impeachment, of new hearings to supplement the old ones, of additional evidence that will spiritually nullify the president’s ludicrous acquittal by the Senate. John Bolton continues his national-security version of a striptease; he’s both a man of — and a metaphor for — an era in which nothing finishes, everything festers and all can be revisited and revised. Bill Barr junks sentence recommendations. Trump commutes sentences. There are investigations into investigators. Cries of cheating and fraudulence fly in every direction.

I blame the internet, because I like to and because it’s true. I mean that I blame the way it encourages people to choose their own information and curate their own reality, so that no official pronouncement competes with a pet theory. I blame a national epidemic of selfishness, too. It seems to me that fewer and fewer people are easily moved off their particular worries, their special wants. Any outcome that displeases them is ipso facto a bastardized one.

“The refusal to grant victors legitimacy bundles together so much about America today: the coarseness of our discourse; the blind tribalism coloring our debates; the elevation of individualism far above common purpose; the ethos that everybody should and can feel like a winner on every day,” I wrote during the last presidential election, and I wondered then if this were a passing phase.

Nope. It’s the context — aggravated if anything — for the current race for the Democratic nomination, which features a scrum of sharp-elbowed aspirants, room galore for recriminations and the very, very real possibility of a brokered convention.

Imagine that Sanders — with a plurality but not a majority of delegates — loses the nomination that way. He and many of his supporters would probably say that Democratic voters had been betrayed, and they wouldn’t be wrong. They could be furious enough to abandon the party’s pick, to the advantage of Trump.

Now imagine the opposite: Although Sanders lacks a majority, Democrats who aren’t on his train feel too intimidated not to ride it, and so rules and dynamics set up expressly to make sure that the nominee represents as close to a party consensus as possible aren’t properly applied. His nomination would be deemed unjust in some quarters, straining party unity.

What would salvage either set of circumstances is the acceptance and acknowledgment by Democrats who don’t get what they want that perpetually sore feelings serve little purpose. But that perspective — that maturity — is in retreat.

We certainly can’t expect it from Trump if (please oh please) he’s defeated in November. He’ll manufacture any and every argument to say that he was robbed. And in a country in which the messy guts of our institutions are increasingly conspicuous and the merchants of cynicism grow ever bolder, he’ll find takers aplenty.

After all, getting worked up is so much less tedious than getting along.

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.