On the surface, President Donald Trump’s self-inflicted troubles would seem a harbinger of future Democratic successes. But beyond the headlines, signs abound that the opposition party is facing its own internal problems.
One sign was last week’s poor fundraising report from the Democratic National Committee. Another was a dispute between its two top leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, over removing statues of top Confederates from the Capitol.
More important – and more dangerous perhaps – is the aggressive campaign being mounted by the Democrats’ left wing to inflict its positions on the party as a whole. Hardly a day goes without a fervent email appeal from Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, seeking contributions for the group that the defeated 2016 candidate formed to finance his continuing effort to take over the party.
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Overtly, most appeals for “Our Revolution” seek support for anti-Trump demonstrations, “progressive” candidates at all levels and Sanders’ signature issues, including a single payer, Medicare-for-all health system and free college tuition for most Americans. Though the group isn’t required to disclose its finances, it’s likely draining revenue from party groups like the DNC.
In addition, the appeals convey a militancy reminiscent of leftist ideological crusades, exemplified by the salutation “in solidarity” and the Sanders group’s name.
Recently, the danger of seeking ideological rigidity was underscored by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s militant speech to the Netroots Nation convention in which she exulted, perhaps prematurely, that progressives have seized control of the party from more moderate leaders who reflect the policies of former President Bill Clinton.
“We don’t have to tip-toe anymore,” she said. “We don’t have to hedge our bets.”
Actually, liberal insurgents have lost a string of electoral and party contests. And leftist militancy may well be the last thing Democrats need as they seek to regain their bearings and prepare for the difficult, state-by-state slog to reverse recent Republican gains and retake the White House in 2020. Their targets should be both moderate suburban districts and more culturally conservative Rust Belt industrial states.
After all, recent Democratic rebounds – Clinton’s 1992 election and the 2006 recapture of Congress that presaged Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph – would not have happened with a one-size-fits-all ideology.
Several prominent Democrats underscored that point recently in organizing a group called New Democracy, based on the premise the party needs to broaden, not narrow, its appeal.
“We have to expand this party and make it a bigger tent,” said Will Marshall, a veteran of similar efforts to moderate the party in the 1980s that led to Clinton’s election, Marshall played a major role in forming the new group.
Others include such politically successful Democrats as former Govs. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Steve Beshear of Kentucky, plus up-and-coming leaders like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. All have succeeded in states outside the party’s bi-coastal base.
A similar signal came recently from Pelosi, an avatar of Democratic liberals, when she said the party had room for abortion rights foes, even as it maintains its overall pro-abortion rights stance. (Less helpful was her proposal to remove the Capitol’s Confederate statues.)
While her words registered predictable outrage from some abortion rights supporters and probably weren’t too popular in her liberal San Francisco district, Pelosi was right. So was Sanders, when he campaigned earlier this year for an Omaha mayoral candidate who had cast some anti-abortion rights votes.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” should be the operative phrase for Democrats, along with the late Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill’s “all politics is local.”
They can best succeed with candidates who truly reflect the areas in which they seek election, but support the party’s basic tenet that government is the necessary protector of those who need help they can’t provide themselves, both by providing an economic safety net and by protecting the rights of all Americans, especially racial and other minorities.
In their understandable and welcome zeal to eradicate Trumpism, Democrats need to remember the president won in part because he spoke to the economic concerns of those Rust Belt and rural Americans who have suffered from the negative aspects of globalism and the decline of the country’s manufacturing base.
They live in a practical world, not a theoretical one, and it’s where the Democratic Party needs to make its stand.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. He can contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.