Can the Democratic Party Be Saved from Itself?
2016 Democrats: Well, I don’t think we can find a candidate more unpopular than Hillary going forward.
2020 Democrats: Hold my beer.
Amid her 2018 take-down of President Donald Trump, members of his administration, media networks and their on-air personalities, and leaders of the Republican Party at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedienne Michelle Wolf took a brief moment to assail the Democratic Party. From the speech:
Republicans are easy to make fun of. You know, it’s like shooting fish in a Chris Christie. But I also want to make fun of Democrats. Democrats are harder to make fun of because you guys don’t do anything. People think you might flip the House and Senate this November, but you guys always find a way to mess it up. You’re somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor.
Wolf’s armchair prognostication didn’t quite hit the mark. Riding a “blue wave” of sorts, Democrats did manage to take control of the House of Representatives, gaining a net total of 41 seats. Conversely, they further lost ground in the Senate, with Republicans adding two seats to their advantage. Nancy Pelosi soon became the Speaker of the House. Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, tightened his grip on the role of Senate Majority Leader.
It’s 2020 now. Once again, every seat in the House will be contested as well as 35 Senate seats, with both parties likely to retain a majority in their respective houses of Congress. (Then again, this year has been so wacky who knows what’s in store.) The one that looms largest, however, is undoubtedly the presidential election. In a virtual walkover, Pres. Trump won the Republican Party primary, meaning he will officially be vying for a second term.
On the Democratic side, meanwhile? The presumptive nominee is Joe Biden, who is on pace to secure enough delegates to win the nod outright but at this writing has yet to do so. Following Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his campaign and endorsement of Biden (barring rule changes at the state level, Sanders will continue to appear on primary ballots and accrue delegates in hopes of being able to influence the party platform), the former senator from Delaware and vice president has fully pivoted to a prospective November showdown with the incumbent.
The Biden-Trump match-up is one many would have predicted in advance of primary elections. For a while, it looked as if Bernie might run away with the nomination with Biden struggling to stay relevant. Then came a big win for Joe in South Carolina and a winnowing of the moderate portion of the field, followed by a Biden romp on Super Tuesday and decisive wins on successive “Super Tuesdays.” In the end, the early forecasts were right.
In advance of the general election, meanwhile, it’s anyone’s guess as to who would triumph in a theoretical face-off between these two men. Politico, for one, labels the race “too close to call.” The website 270toWin gives the edge to the Democratic Party nominee, but notes that critical states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are effective coin flips. Regarding polling, various survey sources give Biden a lead of anywhere to two to 10 percentage points nationally, with none of the recent polls referenced by RealClearPolitics giving Trump an advantage.
Of course, polling doesn’t necessarily translate to votes, much in the way support on social media doesn’t necessarily translate to votes (thank you, Bernie detractors, we get it). This is beside the notion that the Electoral College decides matters, not the popular vote, as any Democratic Party supporter ruefully recounting the 2016 presidential election can tell you. The 2020 election will be decided on a state-by-state basis.
And while, as with national polling, Biden is ahead in numerous cases, re swing states, his are not overwhelming leads. Factor in margin of error and these numbers are somewhat worrisome. Not merely to invoke Hillary Clinton’s infamous line, but why isn’t Biden 50 points ahead or at least better off than current polling dictates? As many would reason, Trump is a terrible president and the depths of his depravity and incompetence have only become more apparent in his administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. What gives?
With all due respect to the “blue no matter who” crowd and even noting how difficult the threat of spreading coronavirus has made traditional campaigning, Joe Biden is a terrible candidate, especially noting the pitfalls which led to 2016’s debacle. What’s more, at a time of great need for so many Americans, he hasn’t been nearly as visible as he could or perhaps should be.
Let’s start with the whole missing-in-action business. Sure, there have been various public appearances by Joe via cable news outlets and online town halls, but these have been fairly sporadic. Additionally, when they have occurred, they’ve been marked by Biden’s trademark gaffes, mental lapses, technical issues, or have otherwise been led by to a considerable extent by Dr. Jill Biden, his wife.
If anything, Biden and his team seem content to try to hide him rather than make him more accessible, concerned that he will do or say something to hurt his chances in the fall. His absences, sometimes spanning days, have prompted the creation and promulgation of the #WhereIsJoe and #WhereIsJoeBiden hashtags on Twitter, and speaking of Twitter, we can be reasonably sure Joe himself is not the one publishing those tweets. Facing the rabid army of supporters that is Trump’s following, this is not a strength.
As for why Biden is a bad candidate, ahem, how much time do you have? Though, in Biden’s defense, that he’s merely “another old white guy” gets perhaps unfairly dwelt upon in an era of seemingly increasing sensitivity to identity politics, his policy goals aren’t doing him many favors in countering the narrative that he’s out of touch. To this effect, most of us seem to be unaware what his actual policy goals are, an idea reinforced by his and his campaign’s insistence on his decency and leadership rather than specifics. Granted, not everyone is a policy wonk or needs to know the nittiest and grittiest of the details of a candidate’s stances on issues, but for younger and more idealistic voters, in particular, their omission is troubling.
Given a dearth of elaboration on what Biden would hope to accomplish as president, we have only his record and his ties to certain industry groups as a large part of his donor base to rely on. That’s not a good sign either. As a senator, Biden took numerous positions/cast votes that haven’t aged well. Voting in favor of the Iraq War. Leading the charge on a 1994 crime bill that helped accelerate mass incarceration. Favoring cuts to social safety net programs like Social Security in an effort to reduce deficit spending. Siding with credit card companies and predatory lenders on 2005 bankruptcy law reform.
Biden’s participation on these fronts suggests fealty to donors and lobbyists or at least acting in the name of political expediency rather than genuine concern for his constituents. What’s worse, in his run-up to the nomination, Biden has either defended a number of these positions or has sought to obfuscate his role in the passage of key legislation. True, he has apologized for certain elements of his record and has backtracked on specific stances that would put him at odds with the rest of the Democratic field, such as his support for the Hyde Amendment, which limits the ability of federal programs like Medicaid in paying for abortions. One gets the sense, however, that his admissions and his reversals are begrudging ones, forced by a recognition of the damage his electoral prospects might incur by refusing to accommodate voter reservations.
On top of what we know about Joe’s votes and past public statements, there’s also the matter of proven falsehoods he has stated as well as questions about his conduct. Biden is a serial liar who had a previous presidential bid derailed by accusations of plagiarism. Just this election cycle, he and his campaign repeated a fabricated tale of his arrest in South Africa en route to see Nelson Mandela and have trumpeted an inflated image of his involvement in the civil rights movement, one Biden himself has promoted over the past three decades and change despite a lack of corroborating evidence. For all the insistence of Biden as a “good guy,” he sure has a problematic relationship with the truth that speaks to his identity as a career politician.
And then there’s the Tara Reade scandal, an ongoing and apparently worsening development for Biden. Initially slow to be recognized if not outright ignored by major media outlets, Reade’s claims of sexual harassment and eventual assault have gained traction even from publications and other sources who tend to be sympathetic to Biden and the Democratic Party. Biden, for his part, vehemently denies the allegations. But his penchant for spinning a yarn as well as his exhibited proclivity for, well, touching girls and women in a manner definitely considered inappropriate by today’s standards casts at least the shadow of a doubt on his dismissal of Reade’s account. It’s circumstantial, yes, but in an era where optics matter more than ever, the associations voters might make are potentially damaging.
Other politicians have been asked to resign or have bowed out of races for less. Here we are, though, in 2020 and with the #MeToo movement firmly established, and Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee. All this despite the allegations against him, his checkered voting record, his fabrications, his obvious cognitive decline, and his sagging enthusiasm among younger voters. This is the face of the Democratic Party and the person who is supposed to usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation and be a bridge to a new era of Democratic leadership. This is the man who party leaders have hitched their proverbial wagon to and who party supporters are backing substantially in the primary.
The question of “What should we do?” in both the short term and long term is one being bandied about at a fever pitch by progressives since Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his presidential campaign. How did we lose and so decisively? Who will run in 2024? Should we vote for Joe Biden? Should we endorse Joe Biden? Are we not focused enough on winning races at the local and county level? Is there too little organizing among similar-minded groups and too much infighting? Where have all the cowboys gone?
OK, that last one was a joke. (Anyone here remember Paula Cole?) In all earnest, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty on the left right now and a big part of it involves whether progressives can co-exist with the rest of the Democratic Party or whether an existing or new party needs to be built up to challenge the duopoly the two major parties currently have on the American political landscape.
Concerning the former, if Bernie’s late struggles in the primary and the tone of the party establishment following his dropping out are any indication, progressives have a long way to go. Sure, a few younger progressives have begun to make a name for themselves. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Ayanna Pressley. Ilhan Omar. Katie Porter. Pramila Jayapal. Rashida Tlaib. Ro Khanna. Despite the popularity of these figures, however, Democratic Party leadership still appears dead set on keeping them at somewhat of a distance.
Also, for every upset win like that of AOC’s, there are that many more blowouts in favor of the more moderate incumbent. By and large, Democratic voters are reasonably satisfied with their elected representatives. Either that or they are too afraid to take a chance on an alternative, too uninformed to make a decision on an unfamiliar candidate (primary voters tend not to be low-information voters but just raising the possibility), or simply convinced that no matter who they choose it won’t make a major difference in their day-to-day lives. The battle to reform the Democratic Party is one being fought tooth and nail by establishment forces and hasn’t yet caught on with a large enough subset of voters.
As for the state of the presidential race, if Biden’s camp and the DNC have made any meaningful concessions to progressives in hopes of winning their votes, er, most of us haven’t seen them yet. Lowering the age for Medicare enrollment to 60, for example, is a slap in the face to Bernie supporters, many of whom are younger and therefore nowhere close to qualifying. In fact, Biden’s refusal to even entertain a single-payer insurance system is, to many leftists, absurd given record numbers of people losing their jobs due to the spread of coronavirus and, with that, access to affordable healthcare.
Rumors of Cabinet appointments for people with ties to Wall Street and/or bailouts for “too big to fail” institutions. Virtual fundraisers starting at $2,800 to participate. Biden himself has been recorded saying that he “has no empathy” for younger generations and telling donors that “nothing will fundamentally change” if he’s elected president. On top of this, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other high-ranking Democrats have offered milquetoast remedies to the economic hardships facing the electorate, allowing Donald Trump, in all his bombast and cluelessness, to hijack the domestic COVID-19 conversation. I don’t doubt the Democratic Party is willing to win in November, but it seems unwilling to do so at the expense of its contributions from certain industries and lobbying groups.
Indeed, the playbook from Biden and Co. for 2020 is evidently to try to court white suburban voters and persuade Republicans to go against Trump while it all but ignores the insights from the energetic progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In doing so, they’re pitching a return to “normalcy,” trying to win without younger voters and independents, or otherwise trying to hector undecided voters into submission, throwing everything from kids in cages to the potential death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as reasons to vote for Biden and not against Trump. That didn’t work in 2016 and, for a segment of the electorate convinced the progressive option was screwed not once but twice, that’s arguably not going to cut it.
And yet, Joe Biden may still win! The closeness of the race as evidenced by polling lends itself to the notion Democrats are wedded to Joe for better or for worse. Take him or leave him. But if you’re a progressive being told that Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are a discussion for “later,” that it’s OK that Biden may have committed sexual assault because “look at Trump,” and that top party brass would rather have someone who struggles to complete sentences versus a much sharper candidate in Bernie Sanders, one who isn’t beleaguered by scandal and who has an army of fanatics waiting to help turn out the vote for him, how are you supposed to feel welcome? Where is the moral compass of this party?
Bypassing the Democratic Party completely, meanwhile, has its own complications, namely that it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to establish a party. Granted, there are existing third-party options like the Green Party and Libertarian Party available, but so far, they have faced many of the same challenges progressives as a whole have faced in terms of funding, organization, and electoral logistics. Widespread voting reform including ranked-choice voting may help overcome this reality or at least mitigate the argument that “X cost us the election.” In the meantime, trying to draft progressives as Greens or Libertarians is a hard sell.
That brings us back to the notion of transforming the Democratic Party from within. As with fashioning a new political entity, it’s going to take time, money, hard work, and a vision forward. Simply put, it’s no small task, and with a party infrastructure in place that is specifically designed to check progressive momentum and stifle dissent, it begs wondering whether the Democratic Party, well, can be saved from itself or whether, even with the very real possibility of a second term of President Trump existing, the party has to fail and be dismantled for substantive progress to be made.
If letting the Democratic Party burn to the ground sounds crazy, as a reminder, in the midst of a pandemic, its presumptive presidential nominee, who has promised to veto M4A if it somehow clears Congress, has trouble navigating his way through an online forum and its congressional leaders have made more concessions to moneyed interests than average people. For a party that is ostensibly a working-class organization, it’s not living up to its mission.
In highlighting the different ways of addressing a broken political system, I don’t mean to dismiss reform efforts as worthless, but only to underscore the difficulties therein. Already, many of us on the left have seen the fight for recognition as the fight of our lives. The global pandemic has only intensified those sentiments.
I, for one, remain optimistic that changing the Democratic Party from the ground up is possible. At the same time and on the road to a more democratic Democratic Party, I feel it’s fair to wonder how many indignities progressives are meant to endure and whether establishment Democrats will ever learn their lesson from their electoral failures.
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