WASHINGTON – Things could go well for the Democrats in next year’s midterm elections – if they don’t Bern out.
President Donald Trump is woefully unpopular, feuding with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Republicans. The GOP can’t manage to repeal Obamacare or do much of anything. Voters say they’d like Democrats to run Congress.
But here come the Bernie Bros and sisters to the Republicans’ rescue: They’re sowing division in the Democratic Party and attempting to enact a purge of the ideologically impure – just the sort of thing that made the Republican Party the ungovernable mess it is today.
Bernie Sanders’s advisers are promoting a “litmus test” under which Democrats who don’t swear to implement single-payer health care would be booted from the party in primaries. Sanders pollster Ben Tulchin penned an op-ed with a colleague under the headline “Universal health care is the new litmus test for Democrats.” Nina Turner, head of the Sanders group Our Revolution, told Politico this last week that “there’s something wrong with” Democrats who won’t “unequivocally” embrace “Medicare-for-all.”
That notion – not just taking a stand but excommunicating all who disagree – is what Republicans have done to themselves with guns and taxes, and it would seriously diminish Democrats’ hopes of retaking the House next year.
At the same time, Our Revolution has stepped up its attack on the Democratic Party. Turner this week sent an email to supporters complaining that she and others attempted to deliver a petition to Democratic National Committee headquarters but “were shut out.” In a follow-up interview with BuzzFeed, Turner expressed particular outrage that the DNC offered her … donuts. “They tried to seduce us with donuts,” she said, calling the gesture “pompous” and “arrogant” and “insulting.”
It’s not just about breakfast confections. The Bernie crowd has begun accusing freshman Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), a rising Democratic star, of being beholden to corporate money. Also in California, Kimberly Ellis, who ran for state Democratic chairman with the support of Sanders and lost in a close race to a former Hillary Clinton delegate, is refusing to concede and threatening to sue. Ellis told the New York Times that the “Democratic Party is in many ways right now where the Republican Party was when the tea party took over.”
And that’s a good thing? Republican fratricide, instigated by tea-party purity police, made Trump possible and left the GOP unable to govern. This is what Sanders’s people would emulate.
Fortunately, Sanders seems to have lost clout. Candidates backed by Our Revolution have lost 31 races in 2017 and won 16, and the wins include “Portland Community College Director, Zone 5” and “South Fulton (Ga.) City Council 6.”
Candidates endorsed by Sanders have struggled in high-profile races. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) lost the DNC chairman race (he was appointed deputy chairman). Sanders-backed Tom Perriello lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia, and a Sanders campaign official was blown out in a California congressional primary. Neither did the Sanders magic get the job done for Democrats in special congressional elections in Kansas, Georgia or Montana, and his candidate lost the Omaha mayoral race.
Yet the attempt by the Sanders movement to impose a health-care litmus test on Democratic candidates shows their destructive potential within the party. Support for single-payer health coverage has been growing, and it would become a real possibility if Republicans sabotage Obamacare but don’t help the tens of millions who would lose insurance.
But to force Democrats to take some kind of single-payer purity oath would set back the cause. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to take control of the House, yet there are only 23 Republicans in districts won by Clinton – and only eight of those were won by President Barack Obama in 2012. There are a dozen Democrats in districts Trump won. In such swing districts, it would be suicidal to pledge support for something Republicans will brand as socialism.
A Pew Research Center poll in June found that while a majority of Democrats (52 percent) favor single-payer health care, only 33 percent of the public does overall. A Kaiser Health Tracking poll in June had better results: 53 percent of the public favored single-payer coverage. But Kaiser found that opinions were “malleable.”
If recent trends continue, and particularly if Republicans undermine Obamacare without an adequate replacement, the time for single-payer will come, and soon. But the litmus test distracts Democrats from protecting Obamacare, diminishes their chances of retaking the House and chops up the party over something that has zero chance of becoming law under Trump.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.