briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, February 13, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, February 13, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Winners and Losers from the New Hampshire Primary: The Contest of Radical Liberal Ideas within the Democratic Party Continues

Politics is partisan. Politics is a conflict. In one sense, it is a competition. It’s a competition for votes. It’s a competition of coalitions. It’s a competition in the United States, largely between two established political parties, but more than anything else, it is a competition of ideas. One of the things we need to note in this week of the New Hampshire primary is that that contest of ideas is found not only between the two major parties where there is this vast chasm separating the two, but it is also found within the parties to a lesser degree, but it is inside the parties that these particular conflicts of ideas are tested out during the process of a presidential primary season. Now that means that right now all of the action in that conflict of ideas is on the Democratic side of the equation.

At one point in the Democratic party, going back to the 1960s and the 1970s you could look just at the Democratic side of the equation and running for president would be mainstream candidates, more liberal candidates, and sometimes even some genuinely conservative candidates, at least on economic and military policy. But by the time you get to the current generation, it is really unthinkable that there would be anyone genuinely liberal who would have any chance whatsoever running for the Republican presidential nomination. And likewise, it is even more inconceivable that anyone who might be even remotely conservative would have any shot for the Democratic presidential nomination. The energy in the Democratic party is actually extremely interesting to watch right now because this energy is running hard left. Now. This has been true for some time. It’s not something that just emerges in the last several weeks and months, but there have been checks and balances on the Democratic side when it comes to how far left the party might go.

One of the most important of those checks and balances came after the debacle for the Democratic party in the 1972 presidential election. That was when the Democrats nominated a liberal candidate, clearly liberal, far outside the mainstream—that would be Senator George McGovern—and he lost to President Richard Nixon in a landslide. One of the biggest landslide victories for Nixon, one of the biggest landside losses for the Democrats in all of American history. The lesson that the Democratic party learned, or thought it learned, in 1972 is that if the Democrats were to win, they would have to put together a coalition, and that means in the electoral college, a collection of states that would represent a far more moderate approach, a far more mainstream approach.

Now, just fast forward about 20 years from McGovern, from 1972 to 1992, and the then Democratic candidate for president Bill Clinton, the then governor of Arkansas, ran explicitly on being a moderate. Now, he actually wasn’t so moderate when it comes to moral issues. He was quite liberal, but when it came to many other issues, Bill Clinton was identified as a moderate. Famously or infamously, he reached a deal with the then Republican speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich on welfare revision and reform. That is now unthinkable in the current context of the Democratic party. Just consider what has taken place over the course of, say, the last 10 days.

Last week we had the Iowa caucuses and, of course, it became an electoral humiliation for the Democratic party. Again, not so much in the numbers, but the fact that they really didn’t have numbers, they didn’t have them for days. Rather than being a demonstration of democracy at work, it became something of an illustration of a state party melting down when it came to its own process. But nonetheless, we do know that the two big winners of the Iowa caucuses were Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

You’re looking at the fact that they were rather neck and neck, regardless of which numbers you’re looking at from the Iowa caucuses. What does that mean? Well, if you put together in the Democratic party primary system, those who are running to the far left and those who are running to the less far left. The fact is that the far left has the energy. Bernie Sanders has the energy, but it is also clear that the Democratic party, or those who are at this point voting in the caucuses and in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, they are looking for some way to retain some kind of possibility, some kind of opening for a moderate candidate. But here’s the thing you have to remember about the tradition of the Democratic party. One of its problems is this: It tends to get very excited about very ideological candidates. It doesn’t tend to get very excited about non-ideological candidates, which is to say there is enormous passion for Bernie Sanders. There’s something like a strong organization for Pete Buttigieg.

The numbers from the New Hampshire primary were clear. Bernie Sanders, 25.7%; Pete Buttigieg, 24.4%; Amy Klobuchar, 19.8%; Elizabeth Warren, 9.2%; Joe Biden, 8.4%. Well, even as we’re looking at the winners here, the biggest story actually coming out of both Iowa and New Hampshire is not the winners, but the losers. And the biggest loser by any calculation is the former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. The energy is draining so quickly from his campaign, and the money as well, that it actually becomes very hard to see how in the world his campaign could now spark to become alive. Furthermore, just think about the historical record. Going back to 1972, no Democrat who has placed lower than second in the New Hampshire primary has gone on to win the election, and we’re not talking about Joe Biden coming in third. We’re not even talking about Joe Biden coming in fourth. We’re talking about Joe Biden coming in with a single digit fifth.

Part II

The Establishment vs. the Voters: The Sanders Campaign Surges Backed by an Energized Following While the More Establishment Candidates Fall Behind

Now, as I said, there is a tradition in the Democratic party of being very excited about very ideological candidates, that’s certainly Bernie Sanders but less excited about the less ideological candidates and Joe Biden, now of course he operates out of a political set of ideas, but he is not well known for his political ideas. He is rather well known for what he talks about all the time in his speeches and that is his long experience in Washington. Here’s something else to note. We are now in a season where having long experience in Washington, especially on the part of the Democrats this year, is a huge problem. That experience does not count for you. That experience counts against you.

So then you ask how in the world would a United States Senator like Bernie Sanders, who has after all served several terms—he’s been in Washington a long time, not as long as Joe Biden, but that would be true of most people—how does Bernie Sanders avoid that Washingtonian establishment reputation? It’s because he is not a part of that establishment in the sense that others are. He is not even a registered Democrat, which is one of the incredible ironies of the 2020 Democratic race. The man who is right now the front runner for the 2020 Democratic party nomination for president isn’t even a Democrat. He’s a registered independent. Why is he not a Democrat? He is not a Democrat because he doesn’t want to sign on to the totality of the Democratic party largely because he is so far left. He’s running for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. But one of the interesting questions here is how in the world can the Democratic party nominate someone who isn’t actually a Democrat for the nation’s highest office on that party’s platform? Well, the answer is there is no rule to prevent it.

But here’s another very interesting aspect of what we are watching right now. The Democratic party establishment profoundly, emphatically does not want Bernie Sanders to be the 2020 nominee. This is really interesting. Now when you talk about the two parties, it’s very easy to talk about America’s two major political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, as if they are rational organizations. As if you can talk about the parties as rational beings, as if you can actually say, the Democrats want to do this. The Republicans want to do that. Now sometimes that works like the Republican majority in the Senate or the Democratic majority in the House, but when you’re talking about the parties and their internal processes, it doesn’t work anymore.

Go back to 2016. The establishment in the Republican party profoundly, emphatically did not want Donald Trump to be the 2016 presidential nominee. Instead, the Republican establishment wanted one of two Floridians to gain the 2016 nomination, either former governor Jeb Bush, the brother and son of Republican presidents or Senator Marco Rubio then and now one of the two senators from the state of Florida, but the fact is neither one of them got very far. The reality is that the party establishment didn’t choose Donald Trump. It was rather that Donald Trump won the nominating process primary by primary crossing the map. But Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican party is actually easier to pull off than what Bernie Sanders is trying to do in the Democratic party. Why? It is because the Democratic party’s own rules are not winner take all when it comes to the primaries, that is the case amongst Republicans. If you win the Republican primary in Florida, you get all of the Republican delegates in Florida, but on the Democratic side, if you win 30% of the vote, you get something like 30% of the delegates.

That means it’s going to be a very tough road for Bernie Sanders to get the nomination, but there’s something else to watch. Eventually the party has to go with its voters. Eventually it will have to find a way to reconcile the will of the majority of Democrats to how the party is going to go through the nominating process, and at that point it might become very, very difficult for the Democrats to stop Bernie Sanders again. Bernie Sanders is running as a populist of the left and he has made the accusation, which actually has credibility, that it was the establishment and the Democratic party that robbed him of the 2016 presidential nomination. It’s going to be extremely difficult for the Democrats to deny Bernie Sanders the nomination again, if he continues to win primaries and caucuses.

Now, there’s something else to consider here. Bernie Sanders, being ideologically very well-identified, has a very active ideological following. And here’s what the Democrats learned in 2016: That kind of support for Bernie Sanders running for the Democratic nomination when he was denied it, was not transferred to the eventual Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. One of the reasons why Hillary Clinton lost is that the supporters of Bernie Sanders did not turn out as the Democratic party needed them to turn out in the 2016 presidential election. Now, this is one of the reasons why in 2020 many of the other Democrats, that includes especially those who are on the debate stage with Bernie Sanders aren’t really pressing him very hard. It is because even as they desperately do not want him to win the nomination, they desperately don’t want to anger his followers. That’s going to be a very interesting needle to thread.

As this process goes on, we’re going to be looking a lot closer at the actual worldview of Bernie Sanders, and the fact is it is an extremely radical worldview, far more than Bernie Sanders appears to present when you see him on a platform or on a debate stage. His ideas are truly radical, even in that context, but his background is even more radical. As we think in worldview analysis, I can just tell you that there could be no clearer, greater, more important demonstration of a clash of worldviews than an eventual presidential race between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. That would be a world historic occurrence.

The polling coming out of New Hampshire indicated that of the voters who supported Bernie Sanders on Tuesday night, fully 29% of them identified themselves as very liberal, very liberal. Well, of course they are. We figured that out before they said it themselves, but the point is it is rare and American politics for voters actually to say that of themselves. That tells you how far left Bernie Sanders has pushed not only himself and his campaign, but also the kind of voters and followers he is attracting. Now, here’s something else to watch: You are looking at a center of energy in the Democratic party. Regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders wins the nomination, he has won the battle to be the center of influence and energy in that party.

That means that the eventual Democratic nominee, no matter who he or she is, that particular person is going to sound more like Bernie Sanders when it comes to policy and political positions than would have been imaginable just say a year ago. But here are a couple of other interesting twists. It was Joe Biden who was the biggest loser in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but the second biggest loser, no doubt, was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Now remember that just a few months ago we were being told that all the energy was really Elizabeth Warren, that she was leading the polls and she was likely, by implication, to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. She was famous, of course, for running alongside Bernie Sanders. She actually said, “I’m with Bernie,” in answer to a question at one of the debates about national healthcare, but it is also interesting to note that Elizabeth Warren evidently isn’t Bernie Sanders.

Elizabeth Warren developed much of her reputation in the 2020 Democratic race for having a plan. As she often says, she has a plan for that. She has a plan for the other thing. She has a plan for everything. As the Wall Street Journal famously said, “She has a plan for everything, every one of the plans bad.” And there is a certain wonkish kind of Democratic voter that is looking for a candidate with a plan. They want to see the specifics because here is where many on the Democratic left are perpetually frustrated. They have people who get up and say, “We need to have national health insurance.” They have people that get up and say, “We need to have this and we need to have that.” But it clearly is nothing more than a kind of demagoguery. There is no real plan to affect that purpose. But Elizabeth Warren decided she was going to run on the left, to the left, but with a plan that turned out to be a problem, because once you do release a plan, that plan is going to be read, and once her plans were read, especially when it comes to issues such as health insurance, it turned out that the numbers don’t add up.

So why is she paying the price rather than Bernie Sanders? It’s because the voters in the process on the Democratic side at this point just want to be told what the candidate wants to do. They want to be told that they’re joining a revolution and that if they just join this revolution, all these things they hope for are going to happen. They were probably actually more likely to happen with Elizabeth Warren, but this is what happens when a candidate like Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that and actually releases the plan.

Part III

Buttigieg and Klobuchar Have Strong Showings in New Hampshire, But Do They Have Enough Influence and Energy to Have Staying Power?

But there are other interesting dimensions to think about here. For one thing, just consider who came in third Tuesday night in the New Hampshire primary. It was Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Amy Klobuchar had been polling over the course of the last several months in fifth place, but that’s where Joe Biden ended up. He had been pulling in third place. That’s where she ended up.

What happened? Well, what happened was the debate that took place just before the New Hampshire primary when Amy Klobuchar came out and had a very good debate performance. How good was it? We’ll just consider this: The press over and over again said, “She did very well. She did very well. She did very well.” Eventually, at least some voters in New Hampshire started telling one another, “She did very well. I thought she did very well.” Even when they didn’t watch the debate, they thought she did very well. This kind of messaging becomes very, very crucial, and so the people in the chattering class who are talking about the candidates before the primary, they really do have a narrative. They tend to issue the same narrative channel by channel and network by network, and eventually the voters start to think it was their idea all along.

It’s not yet clear that Amy Klobuchar has any plausible opening for the 2020 Democratic nomination, but she is positioning herself at this point in the race at least as a serious contender as a vice presidential nominee, and that’s particularly strengthened by the fact that she is a Midwesterner and the Midwestern States could well turn out to be the hinge of the 2020 election. But at least at this point, one of her functions in this race has been to demonstrate the weakness of Joe Biden as a 2020 candidate. It’s going to be extremely difficult for him to overcome that perception even as he thinks he has his best chance in the upcoming South Carolina primary.

But, of course, as we think about both Iowa and New Hampshire, we’ve got to talk about Mayor Pete, Pete Buttigieg, who came in either first or second in both of these contests. By one measure he came in first in Iowa. He came in second in New Hampshire, but that was actually a pretty big gain on Bernie Sanders. The vote was actually pretty close. They ended up with the same number of delegates out of the New Hampshire primary.

But Pete Buttigieg is one of the most interesting phenomena in recent American political history. Here’s the point: We are being told over and over again that he is the moderate in the race. At this point, he is the leading moderate in the race. But Pete Buttigieg himself last week said that if were to gain the nomination, he would be the most progressive or liberal nominee in the history of the Democratic party. Which is right? They’re both right. The Democratic party has moved so far left that if Pete Buttigieg gained the nomination, he would be the most liberal nominee of the party ever, but he would be in the context of the leading energy in the Democratic party right now a moderate.

A moderate now would have been a far left liberal even in 2016 in the Democratic party, and of course the fact is that when you’re looking at Pete Buttigieg, you are looking at an openly gay candidate who in both of these political contexts has welcomed his spouse, a man to whom he is married, in what’s legally defined as same sex marriage. He has been extremely open about his homosexuality and yet that has not served, in reality, as even a major issue in the 2020 Democratic dynamic. How in the world could that be? You have a party that has given itself to enthusiastic support of LGBTQ issues. They, after all, have been some of the driving moral energies in the Democratic party. You would think that the first openly gay candidate on the Democratic side to have this kind of credibility and to receive this number of votes would be something of the talk of the town among Democrats, but he’s not. Well, that raises a question, why not?

Well, he might actually go on to win the nomination. I don’t really think that’s likely, but it’s possible. But the revealing issue at this point in the campaign is this: The Democratic party is so absolutely insistent on marching left on so many policy issues that there is a lack of support in one analysis for someone like Pete Buttigieg because those on the left really don’t believe that he would press left enough or at least effectively enough on these issues.

So Pete Buttigieg points out rightly that if nominated, he would be the most liberal nominee in the history of the Democratic party. But he appears at this point to be nowhere near exciting to the actual liberal energy in the Democratic party, and he being openly gay. But there’s yet another way to look at this worldview analysis as you’re considering the Democratic dynamic in 2020. It comes down to this: the Democratic party is now so insistently enthusiastic about the LGBTQ revolution that they actually don’t need an openly gay candidate to make that point. Put it another way. Let’s say that Pete Buttigieg does not get the 2020 Democratic nomination. Does that mean that the Democratic party is backing up even a millimeter or reducing in energy even a tiny bit when it comes to pushing the LGBTQ revolution? The answer is no. The party is so insistent, committed, and steadfast on that agenda that there’s no risk it could go anywhere else. So they actually don’t have to have an openly gay candidate. But we’ll see.

Part IV

Why Is the Democratic Party So Gloomy in 2020? Low Morale and Downcast Attitude Lead to Low Voter Turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire

But next, looking in worldview analysis, the current context of the presidential campaigns, it is very interesting to note attitude. Now, this has come up in articles in the Wall Street Journal, in the New York Times, and of course in the Washington Post in which you have articles with headlines like “Why Are the Democrats So Gloomy?” Well, just consider the course of the last few weeks. Just think about the New Year and beyond. The Democrats went into the Christmas, New Year break believing that they were going to come out scoring with the American people in the process of the impeachment and the impeachment trial of the President of the United States, but actually of all things, President Trump came out politically stronger as a result of that process. That wasn’t what the Democrats planned. They also planned to transfer a lot of that energy to the 2020 presidential nomination process. They knew that Iowa and New Hampshire were coming very quickly, but as it turns out, Democratic voter participation in both Iowa and New Hampshire are not up. They are considerably down.

You might say that the reason so many Democrats are gloomy is that they right now do not see much of a way that they can press the current situation to advantage. They’re not sure which candidate should be the 2020 nominee because they’re not sure exactly how the party can move forward. But remember, the party’s really not a rational creature. It’s not even made up of rational creatures, say, a set of six or eight people meeting in a room deciding who the nominee will be. No, that actually doesn’t exist. Instead, the Democratic party right now operationally is made up of thousands of voters, actually eventually millions of voters, who participate in a process and no one knows what actually will happen in the variability of the contests that are coming next.

Part V

The Billionaire in the Background: As Super Tuesday Approaches, the Big Question Is Whether Michael Bloomberg Can Buy the Democratic Presidential Nomination

And lurking in the background to all of this is a billionaire, and not just any billionaire, one of the richest men in the world, according to some rankings, the ninth richest man in the world. The former mayor of New York City, the former Republican mayor of New York City, the former independent mayor of New York City, the extremely socially liberal former mayor of New York City, but more than anything else, the incredibly rich former mayor of New York City who has a personal fortune estimated at at least $54 billion, and he has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and he is not yet, by his own strategy, competing in the early Democratic events, but that’s going to change on Super Tuesday, which is in reality just a matter of a couple of weeks away. But when that happens, we’re going to find out if on the side of the Democratic party, a billionaire who hasn’t even been recently registered as a Democrat can buy the Democratic presidential nomination.

As Christians observe all of this, and remember we’re talking about the Democratic party because that’s the active dynamic right now. The incumbent president of the United States is going to be the 2020 Republican presidential nominee. There’s really nothing active therefore, and this is normal when you have an incumbent president on the side of the Republican party. If you had an open presidency with no incumbent, then we’d be talking about both parties as we observe this dynamic, but right now we’re talking about the Democratic party and we’re talking about political ideas. Eventually those political ideas will be a conflict between the two parties, but right now it’s all of interest inside the Democratic party. Something to think about here is that the bandwidth of this contest of ideas is smaller than you might think. There’s really no conservative argument here. There’s really not legitimately a moderate argument here. It is an argument amongst those who are liberals and those who are more liberal and those who aren’t yet more liberal.

This point was made in yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal in a column by Joseph Epstein, and he points to an interesting phenomenon. On the left far more than on the right—on the left, on the liberal side of the equation, there is uneasiness and insecurity in not being in the far left. That’s exactly what you see in the Democratic party right now. If you are calling for revolution, then how can you call for a small revolution when someone’s standing next to you is going to call for a big revolution? But there’s the contrast with conservatives. Conservatives don’t believe in politics by revolution. Instead, conservatives believe in politics by reformation. That’s a very different psychology. It’s interesting right now to see the prophecy fulfilled that revolutions, once they begin, they tend to consume their own children. But the further we get into the 2020 race, I guarantee you, it will get less and less boring, more and more interesting. Thanks for coming along.

I appreciate you listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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