The Democratic Party is facing plenty of growing pains as it tries to emerge from its shocking 2016 presidential election defeat. On the left, progressives who favored Bernie Sanders are demanding that the party elite step outside of their moderate comfort zone and attract apathetic voters by being bold. On the right, moderate Democrats who favored Hillary Clinton are warning that Donald Trump’s unexpected victory means that the American electorate is too conservative for “radical” ideas like single-payer healthcare and tuition-free public higher education.
Despite Donald Trump’s woeful approval ratings, the Democratic Party will not become a winning organization again until it can unify and appeal to rank-and-file voters. Unfortunately, neither flank of the Democratic Party appears willing to yield peacefully for the sake of unity. Conservative Democrats are unwilling to embrace Bernie Sanders, and progressive liberals are unwilling to tolerate any Democrats who might consider negotiating with the GOP. There’s a Democratic civil war brewing, and the inept and wayward Republican Party actually stands to increase its domination of Congress if Dems cannot unify before the midterms.
The latest skirmish in the Dem civil war sees a surprise victory for progressives, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer effectively throwing 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “under the bus.” But this victory may only be temporary, because Schumer’s harsh words stirred up a hornet’s nest. Instead of accepting Team Clinton’s explanation that her upset loss was due to Russia and then-FBI Director James Comey, Schumer declared that you had to “blame yourself” when you lose to a candidate who has only 40 percent popularity.
Schumer’s sharp break with Team Clinton is a big deal for two reasons. First, Schumer is the top-ranked Democrat in Washington. While not quite a household name, Schumer carries a lot of weight among Democratic elites. Second, the criticism is a sharp reversal of Schumer’s previous defenses of the former Secretary of State. During the campaign, he was one of her biggest supporters.
Hitting simultaneously with the intense mockery of the Democratic Party’s new slogan, and coming only weeks after former vice president Joe Biden’s own unfriendly words about Hillary Clinton’s chops as a presidential candidate, Schumer’s criticism of Team Clinton’s performance will invigorate progressives but galvanize moderates. The elbows are getting sharp, and tempers are flaring.
Progressives feel that members of the establishment are finally seeing the light about the futility of boring, corporate-approved “moderate liberalism,” and moderates feel that decades of hard work and shrewd politicking are about to be thrown out the window in favor of untested radicalism. Progressives want to throw out the ‘90s era Democratic playbook and embrace the bold proposals of the 1960s. Centrist Democrats are terrified of losing moderate and independent voters who abhor Trump’s boorishness and bigotry but view single-payer healthcare and a more-than-doubled minimum wage as genuine socialism.
Will the Democratic Party enter untested liberal waters in 2018, aiming to fire up a jaded electorate, or will it retreat to its moderate policy fortresses and hope that the Republicans will simply implode under their own divisions?
Despite progressives basking in the political limelight, moderates may regain the media focus in September, when Hillary Clinton’s new book is expected to hit shelves. If the book, which doubles down on Clinton’s assertion that Russia and Comey cost her the White House, is reviewed sympathetically and generates positive buzz, it could embolden moderates to stay the course. If the public is swayed to believe that Russia and Comey really did scuttle a sure thing for Clinton, they may be more receptive to another moderate Democratic nominee in 2020 who focuses more on social liberalism than economic reform.
And, let’s not forget, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden have criticized Hillary Clinton… not embraced Bernie Sanders.
A future struggle for progressive Democrats is that growing anti-Clinton sentiment does not necessarily equate to love for bold policy reforms. And criticism of the Democratic Party elites’ choice of a new party slogan does not necessarily translate into a desire for progressivism. Team Clinton may have run a weak campaign, but her critics may be more angered with her branding and strategizing than her policy proposals.
Biden and Schumer don’t want to see another poorly-run Democratic presidential campaign, but do they want genuine policy changes or just better marketing?
The time is now for progressives to pounce and take advantage of the post-Clinton political hangover. A power vacuum exists, and top-ranked Democrats who are dismayed at Hillary Clinton’s loss are more receptive to changing their policy views than at any other time. If progressives fail to network with Biden and Schumer, these disgruntled moderate Democrats may quickly return to the centrist status quo. Liberals must wedge themselves in there and try to get Biden and Schumer on the record supporting the 2016 progressive triumvirate of single-payer healthcare, tuition-free public higher education for qualified students, and a higher federal minimum wage.