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“Why haven’t these Democrats dropped out??” The Ides of March may hold the key

02 / 29 / 2020

“What the hell are they waiting for? Why won’t all these candidates drop out of the damn race??”

That’s what Democrats who’re freaked out about a Bernie Sanders nomination have been asking. And if you’ve been following this primary campaign at all, that’s a question you’ve been hearing.

The answer is that the same problem remains for those Democratic candidates: there’s no obvious moderate choice that a majority of Sanders-opposers agree on. And the clock keeps ticking.

The dilemma reminds me of a wonderful scene in the political drama The Ides of March. George Clooney plays the charming Pennsylvania Governor, Mike Morrison, who’s in the lead to win the Democratic nomination — but it’s not a lock. Other candidates who have also earned delegates — but have no path to win — are still lingering around.  

Clooney’s strategist, played by Ryan Gosling, is dispatched to Kentucky to try to persuade a competing candidate to drop out. It’s a US Senator played by Jeffrey Wright. The scene plays out with the two men sitting side by side on a park bench, and less than two full paragraphs are spoken — most of it by Jeffrey Wright: 

“I want on that ticket. You need me on the ticket. And you need my delegates. You could use ‘em before Tuesday. Make a fine story on the Sunday morning news cycle. So I expect to hear from you by noon tomorrow, or I endorse Pullman and take my cabinet seat.” 

Gosling doesn’t say anything. Then Wright turns to him and sternly asks: “Anything else you want to talk about?” 

Clooney’s character expresses early on in the movie that he’s not going to make those kinds of deals. And in the first third of the flick, he turns one of them down. 

You can see where I’m going. By then end of the movie, we see a press conference where Jeffrey Wright bellows out a dramatic endorsement that would convince any voter in America that Governor Morrison is the second coming of the lord. 

So back to the question of what are these other Democrats waiting for? If they truly believe their own daily sound bites that say Bernie has little chance of defeating Trump, then why don’t the ones who have little traction get out and close ranks behind one candidate? At a minimum, why don’t Warren, Klobuchar, and Steyer clear the way? 

Yes, they all believe they’re the best candidate. You have to or else you can’t run this kind of race. And yes, there is no agreement about which of the candidates who’ve been competitive with Sanders so far is the strongest horse for the general election. And this doesn’t even factor in Bloomberg, who’s not on the ballot till Super Tuesday next week. 

But make no mistake, these candidates are also human beings. Ambitious ones, who’ve put decades and/or millions of dollars into this effort. NONE of them want to go home with nothing. And some of them, in the quiet of the night when they’re wide awake, are already thinking about the future. Vice president? A cabinet post?  Jeffrey Wright’s character was playing two candidates against each other to secure his own political future.  

Politics is akin to a chess game — only a whole lot nastier, longer and with more players. We hope our politicians are always thinking about serving the public as they make their decisions on how to play the board. But again, they’re human beings. At the same time, playing for personal gain and serving the public are not always mutually exclusive. 

In a 2011 interview Jeffrey Wright gave about his role in The Ides of March, he talked about what he saw in the Senator he was playing: 

“I imagine the character could be perceived as having the best interests of his constituency at heart, but I read the script with just a touch of healthy cynicism, and I perceived him to be pretty much an egoist and an opportunist, which I have to say I have witnessed in some of the players down in Washington in my experiences down there — not all. There’s a dynamic at work there among not only the politicians but among those who surround them, a desire to be out front, to be in a position of authority — or at least in close proximity to power — that overshadows too often, I think, the desire to do good work.”

That may sound cynical, but keep in mind, it was a cynical character that Wright was playing.

Based on my own experience working for both challenger candidates and incumbents, there are a great number of very good people who genuinely believe in the mission of public service through elective office. And so do I. 

You might say that if that’s so, isn’t it a bit unfair for me to be potentially ascribing these selfish ambitions to any of the candidates left in this presidential primary race? Yes, it may be unfair. 

But so is politics.