Democratic Moderates Fear the 'Socialist Left' Will Wreck the Party - They Want to Keep That Gig
No political organization in the recent history of the world has had a gift for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory quite like the Democratic Party. This is the party that has managed to lose three of the last five presidential elections, despite only once in that period getting fewer votes than the opposition. Although the Democrats nominally hold positions with broad majority support on a wide range of issues, following the heavy losses of the 2010 and 2014 midterms the party found itself in its worst nationwide position since the early 1930s.
For much of the 20th century, Democrats understood themselves to be the party of permanent hegemony on Capitol Hill, no matter who was in the White House: Between the Franklin D. Roosevelt election of 1932 and the Newt Gingrich election of 1994, the party held a House majority for 58 out of 62 years, and a Senate majority for 52 of 62. Sam Rayburn, a Democrat from an east Texas district that is now (of course) solidly Republican, was House speaker for more than 17 years, a record that will surely never be broken. That history has almost become a curse from the past, haunting the Democratic present; it’s like a lost paradise, and every few years a new messiah shows up to tell the faithful that (s)he knows the true path that will lead them back. Or it’s like the idyllic garden in “Alice in Wonderland,” which Alice knows she can reach if she can only squeeze through the door.
There is no garden, no path and no door. This mythic certainty that their kingdom will come again — expressed more recently in the mantra that “demographics is destiny” — has prevented Democrats from perceiving the true nature of their predicament. Over the last three decades, the party has been virtually wiped out in numerous states between the coasts where it was once competitive (or even dominant). It now holds a legislative majority in just 14 states. You can slice and dice the history of American party politics in all sorts of tedious ways, but there is no clear precedent for such an imbalance. More to the point, there’s no precedent whatever, in the United States or anywhere else, for a situation where one party appears to represent majoritarian opinion and typically gets more votes, but has conclusively been shut out of power.
Oh but wait, you say: Blue wave incoming! Yeah, whatever. Presented with the powerful unifying force of a massively unqualified and uniquely divisive president, Democrats may indeed win a House majority this fall. (The Senate remains unlikely.) But I don’t feel like betting the ranch on that outcome, do you? What may be even more impressive than the Democratic record of losing winnable elections is the party's aptitude for finding someone else to blame every time it happens. It was the Russians. It was Ralph Nader. It was the Swift-boat ads. It was liberal complacency. It was gerrymandering. It was all the mean things Republicans said. It was the unfortunate fact that the voters don’t like us all that much, which definitely isn’t our fault.
Over the past few weeks, ever since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's startling primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., we’ve seen a remarkable display of intra-party, bad-faith concern trolling — an area where Democrats have set a high standard. Various “mainstream” or “moderate” figures in or around the party are already seeking to pin blame for a hypothetical November defeat, in advance, on the insurgent “socialist” faction associated with Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders. My daring analysis: This does not bespeak enormous confidence.
To be fair, Democrats of all factions and ideologies were united this week in telling former FBI director James Comey — a lifelong Republican, at least until he worked for President Donald Trump — to shut up and go away after offering unsolicited advice to Democratic voters:
Lordy, no -- not the socialist left! As many people observed, the guy who may have single-handedly tipped the balance in the 2016 presidential election should perhaps not view himself as a fount of political wisdom. But at least Comey’s tweet seemed like a sincere opinion, consistent with his grandiose view of himself as a white knight who embodies all the most honorable tendencies of America in one extremely tall white man.
Joe Lieberman, however, the onetime Connecticut senator and 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, is just an odious little garden gnome, in constant danger of being peed on by the family Schnauzer. He seems, in fact, to have undergone the same process of physical and intellectual shrinkage as Rudy Giuliani: Was this a bargain offered by an evil sorcerer, which conveys immortality at the cost of one’s soul, stature and spine?
Lieberman was purely trolling, in especially distasteful fashion, in writing a July 17 Wall Street Journal op-ed that Red-baited Ocasio-Cortez with an extraordinary assortment of lies and urged Crowley, the 10-term incumbent she defeated in the June Democratic primary, to run against her on a third-party line in the fall. Since the Journal article is behind a paywall, here's a taste:
Because the policies Ms. Ocasio-Cortez advocates are so far from the mainstream, her election in November would make it harder for Congress to stop fighting and start fixing problems. Thanks to a small percentage of primary votes, all of the people of New York’s 14th Congressional District stand to lose a very effective representative in Washington.
Fortunately, Joe Crowley and the voters in his district can prevent this damage. On Election Day, his name will be on the ballot as the endorsed candidate of the Working Families Party. But for Mr. Crowley to have a chance at getting re-elected, he will have to decide if he wants to remain an active candidate. I hope he does.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose platform, like hers, is more Socialist than Democratic. Her dreams of new federal spending would bankrupt the country or require very large tax increases, including on the working class. Her approach foresees government ownership of many private companies, which would decimate the economy and put millions out of work.
First of all, Lieberman surely knows that Crowley will do no such thing — he’s a decent guy and a party loyalist, and the PR damage would be enormous — and that Crowley would lose even worse the second time around. (I live in the 14th district; I doubt Lieberman has been here in 30 years, except crossing overhead on the Cross-Bronx Expressway.)
Secondly, the actual point here may be to none-too-subtly remind Journal readers that Lieberman himself ditched the Democratic Party after his own primary defeat in 2006, and endorsed John McCain against Barack Obama in 2008. Whose interests is he serving by encouraging Democrats, in the pages of the house organ of Big Capital, to sabotage a young, progressive woman of color?
None of this makes clear why powerful people like Comey and Lieberman are so worried about a small-scale insurrection within the Democratic Party that is nowhere near as "far from the mainstream" as they pretend, and is also a long way from staging a coup and hanging portraits of Trotsky and Che in DNC headquarters. Socialist-dread syndrome also appears to have driven the recent gathering of “moderate” Democrats in Columbus, Ohio, under the aegis of the think tank Third Way, as reported in a widely circulated piece by Alex Seitz-Wald of NBC News (a former Salon staffer).
Several attendees said they were worried that single-payer health care and abolishing ICE and other Bernie-fied policy proposals of the “angry left” would alienate swing voters and damage the party’s prospects for victory in the midterms. That’s at least a valid debating point, although it has been the Democratic default setting for decades. (And has led to that, um, amazing record of uninterrupted winning.)
I was struck by the comments of former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who admitted that Democratic moderates find themselves on the defensive in ideological terms: "The only narrative that has been articulated in the Democratic Party over the past two years is the one from the left," he told Seitz-Wald. "I think we need a debate within the party. Frankly, it would have been better to start the conversation earlier."
Markell is absolutely right: A debate is overdue. But a debate about what? The problem for Democratic moderates is precisely that they will not define or explain their positions clearly, except in wonky, granular, political-calculus terms, in large part because their ideas are widely discredited and massively unpopular.
Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois told reporters in Columbus that she stands for "a silent majority who just wants normalcy. Who wants to see that people are going out to Washington to fight for them in a civil way and get something done. ... There's a lot of people that just don't really like protests and don't like yelling and screaming." As Seitz-Wald observes, Bustos sounded more like a Nixon-era Republican than a traditional Democrat, but in any case that's a statement about messaging and style that deliberately avoids any discussion of ideology or specific policy proposals.
At the Democratic convention in 2016, I tried to find a single elected official or candidate who would tell me, straight up, that the financial deregulation and free-trade agreements and welfare cuts and mass incarceration policies of the Bill Clinton years had generally been good ideas, whatever bumps we might have encountered along the way. Nobody would do it — but I don’t think that was because none of them believed it.
Attendees at the Third Way conference were clearly aware that middle-path Democrats will need big, new ideas in order to compete successfully with Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, debt-free college and the other dangerous pinko proposals that would have had near-unanimous support in the pre-Reagan Democratic Party. Here's what they came up with: A private-sector, employer-funded universal pension plan to supplement Social Security. OK, I'm just spitballing, but that probably isn’t going to suck the wind out of the red sails of Bernie’s fleet and sweep Mitch Landrieu (or whomever) into the White House.
I’m not saying that so-called moderate or mainstream Democrats don't have ideas worth discussing or don’t possess a legitimate ideology. I am saying, with Jack Markell, that it’s long past time for them to tell us clearly what they believe and defend it forcefully. Because there’s a widespread sense that the Democratic Party has some hidden agenda or obscure set of motives beneath its bland, corporate, coalition-building exterior, and that has been infinitely more damaging than any amount of socialist fervor. On the right, it has fueled the perception that Democrats are a pack of conspiratorial scolds who want to limit the freedoms of others -- and so has driven conservatives to the polls. On the left, it has fueled the perception that the party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs and its ilk -- and so has driven progressive apathy. (If neither stereotype is fair, neither is entirely false.)
This quantum ideological uncertainty is what drove people crazy about Hillary Clinton, I think, fueling the Trumpian narrative that she was deceptive or dishonest. (Which was hilarious in that context, needless to say.) She seemed impossible to pin down, first attacking Bernie Sanders as a wild-eyed radical, then gradually embracing the “progressive” label and finally running on a platform that incorporated most of his ideas. She seemed insulted by the suggestion that her Goldman Sachs speeches created any kind of political problem or required any explanation.
Clinton's political flexibility or malleability -- according to the conventional Democratic playbook -- was supposed to be a source of strength, a sign that she was a hard-headed, pragmatic decision-maker who would not be guided by doctrine. Amid the reversed magnetic field of the 2016 election, against an opponent who repeated the same forceful (if meaningless and insincere) phrases over and over again, it just looked like mendacity.
Like her entire generation of Democrats, Clinton had been programmed down to the cellular level with the early-‘90s creed that ideology itself was dangerous and toxic and likely to scare away suburban voters who just wanted civility and decency and problem-solving. Well, folks, I’m not a liberal or a conservative. I’m more of a Republibservatron! This avoidance or denial of ideology — the ideology of no-ideology — had perverse results: It elected two Democratic presidents to two terms apiece but left their party rootless and in ruins, seemingly defenseless before a deranged radical minority with a decaying relationship to reality (but no shortage of fervent ideology).
It’s tempting to say that a specter is haunting the Democratic Party and it’s the specter of socialism, blah blah blah. But that’s largely untrue: The specter is imaginary and so is the socialism, pretty much. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and their loose array of allies across the country are a modest contingent within the party. Only a handful of them will win elections this year, and in any case they’re closer to being old-time left-wing populists, with a 21st-century overlay of multiculturalism and intersectionality, than, you know, to this:
Hubert Humphrey, the leading Democratic moderate of Hillary Clinton’s youth, would find little to object to in Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, beyond the labeling on the package. (Once the Happy Warrior figured out what ICE and super PACs were, and what they had done to America, he’d go out and ring doorbells in her district.) Then again, Humphrey had no fear of open and often heated ideological conflict, which was a staple of Democratic discourse for decades and is exactly what the “democratic socialist” insurrection has reintroduced since 2016.
Those who shut down such internal conflict and purged the activist left from the Democratic Party, on the premise that it was the only possible way to win elections in a "centrist," anti-ideological nation, have never faced the consequences of their historic blunder. They have lost repeatedly and on a grand scale, insisting every time that they really should have won — or in some other, better world, did win — and that whatever went wrong was somebody else’s fault. They are the ones who appear committed to an inflexible, dogmatic ideology that is out of step with political reality. They are surprised and outraged to learn that if they want to continue their losing streak, they will have to fight for it.