briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, March 2, 2020

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

It’s Monday, March 2nd, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Fragility of Political Momentum: Biden Wins Big in South Carolina, But Can He Back Up His Victory on Super Tuesday?

It’s hard to imagine a more concentrated few days in American political life than the period from last Saturday, until about the middle of this week, and then ricocheting forward. We’re talking of course, about the fact that 2020 is a presidential election year, and the period between last Saturday’s South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, in which so many hundreds of Democratic delegates will be assigned. We’re talking about momentous days, and we’re also talking about a radical shift in the momentum of the Democratic Party, at least when it comes to shaping up the eventual contest, which will lead to the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. One of the things we need to recognize as we look at the developments of the last, say, 48 hours, is how fragile and sometimes illusory political momentum can be.

Consider the fact that given what had taken place in the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire primary, and then the Nevada primary, it appeared that the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination were independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed Democratic Socialist, and Pete Buttigieg, who recently completed his term as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the first openly gay major presidential candidate in any political party. But as of last night, Senator Sanders is now facing a direct challenge from former vice president Joe Biden, who not only won the South Carolina primary on Saturday, but won it convincingly. But the race has also been reshaped by the fact that Mayor Buttigieg is now out of the race, an announcement he made yesterday.

What’s going on here? Well, first of all, we need to look at the South Carolina primary. The primary itself was a virtual landslide for Joe Biden, which is interesting in any number of ways. For one thing, just about everyone is talking about the fact that Joe Biden won the primary, even exceeding many expectations. And here’s another interesting historical note. Even as Joe Biden has run three different times for the Democratic nomination, this is actually the very first primary that he has won. It’s not likely to be the last. Of course, the way the media will work in this, and the political punditry, is that there will be immediate claims that the race has been completely reshaped, that Joe Biden is now a serious contender against Bernie Sanders for the 2020 nomination.

Is that true or false? Well, it’s true today, but it might be false by the time we know the full results of Super Tuesday, sometime early on Wednesday. On Saturday, Joe Biden won with about 50% of the total vote. Bernie Sanders came in, getting less than half the number of votes as Joe Biden. But Bernie Sanders is still going into Super Tuesday with enormous strength, most importantly in the state of California, where he has a very large lead. And California, of course, has the largest delegate count of any state in the entire nomination process. Furthermore, Bernie Sanders, at least as we know from polling, has a very commanding lead in other states as well. And as of the state of the race this morning, it is clear that Bernie Sanders might actually defeat Massachusetts’s Senator Elizabeth Warren—she is the competitor in the Democratic list who is closest to Bernie Sanders’ lane—he might actually defeat her, and almost certainly will humiliate her in her home state of Massachusetts on Tuesday. Biden’s win in South Carolina was an enormous boost to his campaign, which had been failing to the point of near collapse. As a team of reporters for the Los Angeles times reported yesterday, “Biden’s commanding victory, his first in his three presidential campaigns re-establishes him as a top tier candidate, and gives him a launchpad for the crucial Super Tuesday contest this week when California and 13 other states will vote.” Speaking to supporters Saturday night, Biden said, “For all those of you who’ve been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign.” He went on to say, “The press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead, now thanks to all of you, the heart of the Democratic party, we just won, and we won big because of you, and we are very much alive.”

But just how alive is the former vice president? He had enormous momentum in the state of South Carolina because he had extremely prominent endorsements, especially from African American leaders, and he had very strong support from African American Democratic voters. And in the state of South Carolina, the majority of those voting in the Democratic side of the equation are African American. Joe Biden had not only a long relationship with many of those voters and their leaders, he also had the credibility with the African American vote in South Carolina, of having served two terms as vice president to the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama. Furthermore, the near landslide victory of Bernie Sanders days before in Nevada gave a jolt to the entire Democratic Party establishment, that is petrified, scared to death of the notion of having an avowed Democratic Socialist at the top of their party’s ticket, leading to what at least some Democrats believe would be down-ticket carnage, which could mean even the loss of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, losses in key tight Senate races, and perhaps losses at the state House level as well.

But it is actually going to be extremely difficult for the Democratic Party establishment to stop Bernie Sanders and his forward momentum. There are a few reasons for that, most importantly his financial support coming from small donors, his political momentum, and a very effective organization built at the state and local level. Bernie Sanders is right now a formidable candidate. Joe Biden is less formidable, but he does pose a serious threat, because what the Democratic establishment wants, along with many millions of Democratic voters, is what they will claim as a moderate candidate, a centrist candidate.

Now as we shall see, the current reality in the Democratic Party is that centrist here means just less liberal than the other candidates. And when it comes to an avowed Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders, or even in an avowed liberal such as Elizabeth Warren, the fact is that Joe Biden is far more liberal running in 2020 than even he had been as a candidate in previous Democratic presidential cycles. The reality is the Democratic Party has moved far left, and Democratic leaders have sought to recruit far left voters. That it should be no surprise that the party itself is then moving in that direction. But the most interesting problem right now that the Democratic party has, as an establishment trying to stop Bernie Sanders, is that there are still too many candidates in the race to dilute the alternative vote.

But Joe Biden faces another huge problem, and that is that it is going to be very difficult for him to repeat this week, what he did last week in South Carolina. The reason for that is also pretty simple. Joe Biden and his campaign put everything on South Carolina, knowing that if he did not win there and win big, his campaign was effectively over. But the fact remains that he goes into Super Tuesday with very little money, very little ad support, and very little organization compared to other leading candidates, most importantly, Bernie Sanders. The New York Times aptly described Biden’s challenge in a headline story that ran yesterday, “Biden had a big night, he needs another in 72 hours.”

Part II

Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer End Presidential Campaigns: Why the First Openly Gay Presidential Candidate Wasn’t Liberal Enough for the Democratic Party

But in the last 72 hours, no less than two Democratic candidates have dropped out or the race, one far more significant than the other. The first to drop out was billionaire Tom Steyer, and he dropped out after he had made clear that after the South Carolina vote, he saw no way forward for his campaign. Now here’s something very interesting. Tom Steyer was a Democratic activist and donor who had built his fortune, over a billion dollars, as an investor, and some of those investments were in the energy industry. But Tom Steyer had put his money where his mouth is as a climate activist, and also as an activist calling for the impeachment of president Donald Trump. He spent millions and millions of his own dollars on those issues. But then after saying that he was not going to enter the presidential race, he did just that. And he did so willing to spend his own money, one of two self-funded billionaires in the 2020 Democratic race.

But Tom Steyer spent over $20 million on advertising in the state of South Carolina alone. He came in third in the voting, but given the stakes, that was disaster for him. Saturday night, he withdrew from the race saying, “Honestly, I can’t see a path where I can win the presidency.” But the Los Angeles Times also indicates that federal campaign disclosures indicate that he spent roughly a quarter billion of his own dollars, that is about $250 million, in a quest for the 2020 Democratic nomination that ended on Saturday night.

But last night, a far more significant candidate in the 2020 Democratic race also withdrew. As Chelsea Janes and Amy Wang reported for the Washington Post, “Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who saw a meteoric rise from virtual unknown to top tier contender, and became the first openly gay candidate to make a high profile presidential run, ended his campaign as he confronted the reality that his prospects of victory had all but collapsed.”

The announcement was made on Sunday night before the Super Tuesday voting comes this week. The key number that ended the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg was two, as in 2%. Buttigieg received about 2% of the African American vote in Nevada. He then turned around after making a Herculean effort, and received just about the same, 2% of the African American vote in South Carolina. To state the matter clearly, no Democratic candidate has a chance, even a thin chance at the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, without overwhelming support from the African American community. As Saturday demonstrated, Joe Biden at this point has it, but Pete Buttigieg profoundly does not. In his withdrawal announcement on Sunday, Buttigieg said, “After a year of going everywhere, meeting everyone, defying every expectation, seeking every vote, the truth is that the path has narrowed to a close for our candidacy, if not for our cause.” The fact that Pete Buttigieg has dropped out of the race may give an additional opportunity for others who are more conservative than Bernie Sanders to pose a credible alternative to him. But on the other hand, it might have little impact given the momentum that Bernie Sanders has been building.

But as you’re thinking about Pete Buttigieg, it is really important to recognize how history is likely to remember his role in the 2020 Democratic race. It comes down to the statement that is easily summarized, that he is the first openly gay candidate to make a credible high profile run at a major party nomination. You can be assured that he is unlikely to be the last, but he was the first. And not only was he the first openly declared gay candidate, but he is also married to a man, Chasten Buttigieg, who has often appeared with him on stage. And furthermore, he made his gay identity a part of his political identity, that showed up even in the statement in which he announced he was withdrawing from the race on Sunday night.

The fact is that from the beginning, the candidacy of Pete Buttigieg was built on Pete Buttigieg, on his identity, on his intelligence, on his experience. But the experience was extremely thin. It wasn’t politically plausible, upon reflection, that someone who served as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, could be catapulted into the White House. But at least for a season in the Democratic Party, it was at least conceivable, and he was considered a front runner in the Democratic race, virtually until he withdrew last night. So what’s going on here? Well, for one thing, the Democratic Party is the party of identity politics. And furthermore, it is the party which has openly embraced LGBTQ rights at the center of its political ambitions and party identity. Thus, it could not possibly do anything less than celebrate the candidacy of Pete Buttigieg.

But there was always a problem here. What was the problem? It wasn’t his gay identity in the view of the Democratic Party, rather it was the fact that he wasn’t liberal enough in his policy positions in a party that has been moving far left, and moving there fast. Look at it this way, his gay identity, which the Democratic establishment could only celebrate, wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that his experience was thin and, furthermore, his policy positions were just not liberal enough for the forward momentum of the party. Consider the fact that Bernie Sanders has far more support amongst younger Democratic voters than Pete Buttigieg. Being gay is interesting in the Democratic context of 2020, but it’s not enough.

And furthermore, his LGBTQ identity wasn’t enough for many in that community, which accused him of being too tame, in the words of one activist, “Not gay enough,” in running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The Washington Post simply summarized the fact that his campaign was trailblazing. Well, in the Democratic Party of course, it was trailblazing, but Christians, as we apply worldview analysis, should also understand that what it represents is further evidence of what we see in a society reordering its entire moral system. You find this in the fact that even as Pete Buttigieg ran in 2020, he didn’t get too far. But you can count on the fact that there will be others, especially on the Democratic side of the equation, who’ll be rushing as fast as possible in subsequent presidential cycles to try to figure out how a gay candidate can get further than the South Carolina primary. More than anything else, however, the campaign of Pete Buttigieg in 2020 has furthered the cause of normalizing same sex relationships, and even what is legally defined as same sex marriage. There can be no doubt about that.

But we ought to make a couple of other observations before leaving the news concerning Pete Buttigieg. One is the fact that we should remember that in the 2020 race, Pete Buttigieg had sought with good energy, to try to raise the prominence of what has been called the religious left. He argued that religious liberals, citing their liberal religion, should support his campaign. But as we have noted over and over again, there just aren’t that many religious liberals left in the United States, and there certainly was no army for Pete Buttigieg to muster.

It’s also very interesting to note that his lack of support, not only in the African American community, but elsewhere, it underlines the fact that the pro-LGBTQ position that is taken by the Democratic Party, and by those who were in the intellectual elites, in the cultural class, it doesn’t necessarily filter down at the grassroots level, especially when people go into a voting booth or perhaps into other contexts as well. One of the things to consider is that, that moral revolution has been particularly concentrated amongst white knowledge workers, that is white members of the knowledge class. That means of the intellectual elite, those who work primarily with ideas, they’re in academia, they’re in the cultural creative industries, they’re in Hollywood and elsewhere.

But when it comes down to votes, it turns out that Mayor Pete just didn’t have that many votes outside of a fairly thin slice of the Democratic Party’s activist base. During the campaign, Pete Buttigieg had responded to vice president Mike Pence by saying, “Your problem is not with me. Your problem, sir, is with my Creator.” It was a clever argument, clever meaning that Mayor Pete knew it would gain a good deal of media traction, but theologically it fails, because how do we know what the Creator’s intention was? Well, actually Christians understand that, we know it in two different ways. One of them is the revelation in nature, and nature cries out male and female. But furthermore there is the explicit revelation of God in Scripture, and Scripture tells us that God’s intention from the beginning was the union of a man and a woman. And that’s not just found in Genesis, it’s also found in a text such as Matthew 19, where Jesus himself affirmed God’s original intention in marriage. But this just shows you how a clever soundbite can resound throughout the society with moral impact.

One final issue on Mayor Pete Buttigieg, just remember the extreme position that he took on abortion, and it indicates the extreme position that has now become the normative orthodoxy of the Democratic Party. It is not yet clear what Pete Buttigieg will do in the future, but an immediate question for Democrats is where he throws his support, if indeed he offers an endorsement or support to any other candidate in the 2020 race. Time will tell.

Part III

The United States and the Taliban Sign a Deal to End Conflict in Afghanistan: The Necessity of the Right Foundation in Building a Free Society

Finally, history was also made over the weekend with the announcement that the United States had signed a deal with the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, which is likely to lead to the eventual withdrawal of all uniformed American troops from that nation within, we are told, the next 14 months. As the New York Times reported, “The United States signed a deal with the Taliban on Saturday that sets the stage to end America’s longest war, the nearly two-decades old conflict in Afghanistan that began after the September 11 attacks, killed tens of thousands of people, vexed three White House administrations, and left mistrust and uncertainty on all sides.” There is likely to be a good deal of political commentary and debate, not only over the deal that the administration has now signed with the Taliban, but over the entire course of the war in Afghanistan and its meaning.

This much is clear. There was good evidence in 2001 that Afghanistan was harboring, not only Osama bin Laden and his colleagues, but other terrorists who had been involved, not only in Afghanistan, but on the world stage and in the West. The war that began just weeks after the 911 attacks in the United States, began as an effort to push back the Al-Qaeda insurgency, and it also effectively was a war or a military effort against the Taliban. Afghanistan is an Islamic state. The Taliban represents an interest group within Afghanistan that is also tied to terrorism, essentially tied, and furthermore is totally committed to Islamic rule and Sharia law. The abuses, indeed the atrocities and horrors of Taliban rule are well documented in Afghanistan, but it is virtually certain now that the Taliban will have, if nothing else, greater influence in Afghanistan, and they have gained one their central political goals, which is the removal of uniformed American troops.

But there are huge historical lessons here that Christians ought to think about. For one thing, as we mention Afghanistan, that landlocked in central Asia, we recognize that when we are looking at a functioning society and a functioning government, this is not only one of God’s gifts, it is also a great moral achievement. Afghanistan has not reached that achievement, it’s not likely to. Looking at Afghanistan, let’s remind ourselves that it was called The Great Game of Empire during the 19th century, when the British Empire and the Russian Empire contested Afghan territory. The British eventually won military victories, only to decide that the victory was too expensive, and eventually they turned Afghanistan back. The British suffered an enormous and humiliating retreat in 1842, and they eventually resigned sovereignty over the country in 1919.

Afghanistan has been a part of this conflict of empires going back throughout virtually all the annals of human history. You can go back to the period of Alexander the Great. Afghanistan is on the famous Silk Road, that is that massive trade route between China and the rest of the East, and Europe. That trade route for millennia has been enormously profitable, but it is also geographically and militarily incredibly vulnerable. One point that should humble us all is the recognition that empire after empire has thought that it could succeed where others had failed in Afghanistan. And this includes, of course, the disaster that befell the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan in the late 20th century, only for the United States to follow, in our own way, a generation later.

This is one of the quandaries of America’s role in the world. It was virtually impossible to think that the United States should not, and would not respond to the September 11 attacks and the Afghanistan links to those attacks. But it was also very clear, once the military action had been undertaken, that it suffered from a lack of clear goals, and the fact that whatever one did in Afghanistan, it effectively stirred a pot that remained stirred, dangerously so, even after the external action. In worldview analysis, let’s just ponder this: When you look at what makes, for example, the constitutional form of government in the United States possible, when you look at the civilizational achievements that have marked Europe and Western civilization, you understand that they did not emerge by accident.

They emerged from a very clear set of convictions, and a vision and understanding of human dignity in the rights of human beings, of the orderliness and the role of government, and the limitations of that government, of a constitutional rule that established the parameters of government and limited its powers, a government of the people, by the people and for the people. You understand that those particular values and principles also didn’t come from a vacuum, they were the inheritance and contribution of Christianity. But you look at Afghanistan and recognize that virtually none of the conditions for that kind of orderly society, virtually none of the conditions for that recognition of human dignity and human Liberty, virtually none of those conditions exist in Afghanistan now. But it’s important to recognize none of those conditions have ever existed in Afghanistan.

We should keep this very much in mind as so many in our society, especially at the elite level, want to subvert the foundations on which our own experiment in ordered liberty and constitutional self-government are established. If the foundation is destroyed, the entire edifice will fall.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Orange County, California, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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