Are the Democrats divided? No — they're poised to win big if they don't screw it up

Media's lazy narratives about Democratic divisions only help Trump. The good news is voters aren't buying it

Published August 6, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

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Media coverage of the Democratic presidential race and of the whole Democratic Party leans heavily on three overlapping ideas: that the party is deeply divided, that the divide is between “moderates" and "the left," and that if the left wins, so does Trump. All three ideas are highly misleading.

The country is deeply divided, but Democratic voters have seldom been so united: It happened in 1936, when FDR demolished Alf Landon; in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson set a popular vote record, winning 60.8% against Barry Goldwater; and perhaps in 2008, when Barack Obama stirred Democrats’ souls and reassembled most, if not quite all, of their old coalition.

Trump is the great Democratic unifier, but there are other forces at work. One is a shift in strategy on the grassroots left. Hear Jill Stein’s name lately? Me neither. Google "green party" and all you get is news from Europe. That’s because the left finally learned the lesson of the Tea Party: If you want to govern, challenge a major party from within. It’s not called selling out. It’s called taking over.

Trump instilled fear in progressive hearts. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez instilled hope, and provided proof that the strategy of challenging from within might actually work. In 1998, the Working Families Party began testing the strategy: primarying the worst incumbents, endorsing the best and running third-party races only when it made sense. In 2018 the strategy proved out. In 2020 more of the progressives’ energy will go to electing a Democratic president than in any other election of our lives.

Democratic unity reflects another, deeper shift: the party’s movement toward what pundits still call the left but what is actually a new American center, already born, that struggles now only to be recognized. The new center embraces social issues: it is pro-choice and anti-gun; pro-marriage equality and anti-discrimination in any form. All these positions enjoy support of 60% or more of the American people, a figure that coincides with Lyndon Johnson’s vote share when he set that record.

The consensus extends beyond social issues. Roughly  60% of voters think global warming is real, is man-made and is a genuine crisis. About the same proportion back nearly every tax hike on corporations and the super-rich that has been proposed. A higher percentage, around 70%, would regulate prescription drug prices and enact a health care public option. Eighty percent would end family separations at the border and offer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

The themes that bind the consensus are political reform and economic justice. This cry of populists and progressives since the late 19th century was the core message of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, which went ignored by Hillary Clinton but was lifted whole cloth by Trump in his "drain the swamp" ads and speeches. It can be distilled into three points: the democracy is corrupt; the middle class is dying; and the reason the middle class is dying is that the democracy is corrupt. In every poll that lists political corruption as a choice, voters say it’s the issue they care about most.

These issues that 60% of all voters agree on, 90% of all Democrats agree on. The party has never known such unanimity, nor have its views ever aligned so closely with those of a large majority of unaffiliated voters. And Republicans? On all these issues they swore an oath of fealty to views held by barely a third of the electorate. Democrats have a rare political luxury: they can run hard on issues dear to their base without needing to tack to some other perceived center in the general election.

To grasp the consensus among Democratic and unaffiliated voters is to grasp how outdated the media’s standard model of the political cosmos has grown, starting with its map of left, right and center. Take its current obsession with the alleged civil war between "progressives" and "moderates" in the House Democratic caucus.

One obvious problem is the media’s penchant for overdramatizing every little difference of opinion it happens to stumble on. For thirty-five years, House Republicans fought civil wars as bloody as anything in "Macbeth" or "Richard III." Current sniping among House Democrats wouldn’t provide enough action to fill an episode of "The West Wing." But there’s a deeper problem with the analysis.

In 2018 I lent a hand to a project that made me look closely at House races in red districts. It was the brainchild of a friend, Charlotte Koskoff. She and I had run, in different years, for the same congressional seat and lost tight races after being outspent three to one or more. Neither of us got a penny from our national party. Years later, Charlotte selflessly decided to help House candidates who'd been left high and dry due to the narrow, bloodless targeting of shortsighted party leaders in Washington.

In drawing up a list of our "top 10 long shots" for her web site, now called, I was struck by how many candidates there were like Mike Siegler, an exceedingly bright, progressive civil rights attorney running in the exceedingly red 10th district of Texas. The incumbent, a feckless Trump clone, had won his last race by nearly 20%. With almost no help from the national party, Siegler — who’s running again in 2020 — came within four points.

Poring over races in deep red districts, I was surprised by how progressive all the candidates sounded. The districts were mostly rural and the messages echoed the voices of prairie populists of old. I looked at web sites of candidates the national party was actively assisting and found the same thing. They were practical-minded and a bit more cautious on social issues. Their tone was less combative and they stressed fiscal responsibility. But the message was one of fundamental political and economic reform.  It was delivered with a civility fit for a Rotary luncheon but it was pure Bernie: The middle class is dying because the democracy is corrupt.

Caucus infighting is mostly over tactics: whether to shut down the government when you can’t get your way; how long to hold out on a bill to fund border security. Some spats are sparked by the jealousy of older moderates; others by the intemperance of younger progressives. None thus far have been truly ideological.

The great Democratic divide isn’t between "moderates" and "the left"; it’s between the party’s small-donor base and its big-donor elite, between volunteers who labor in the vineyards and lobbyists who drink the wine. It is the divide between the great majority of Americans and the pay-to-play politics they’ve come to despise.

That division is on display in the Democratic presidential race. Last week’s CNN debates exemplified the reality TV approach to politics: identify, dramatize and personalize a conflict; let each player speak just long enough to oversimplify an idea or insult an opponent. Some candidates were all too happy to play along.

Much debate analysis was along the line of "progressive Dems diss Obama." There’s some truth there, but look closer. First, the attacks were on Biden; Obama was mostly collateral damage. The fiercest exchanges were with Julián Castro, Obama’s HUD secretary, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Bill de Blasio.

Harris and Booker attacked Biden on racial justice issues: school busing and crime. Castro’s vow to decriminalize most illegal border crossings made immigration a bone of contention, but the only one to cite Obama-era deportations was de Blasio. Of the four, only de Blasio is a progressive in the Sanders/Warren mode. Castro, Booker and Harris are classic pay-to-play politicians, on a par with Rahm Emanuel, Terry McAuliffe and, sad to say, Biden himself.

 Harris and Booker must attack Biden on the risky ground of racial justice because neither is in a position to attack him on his real vulnerability: a lifelong affinity for big banks, health insurers, the pharmaceutical industry, telecommunications companies, etc. As I write, both are out raising big dollars from powerful special interests.

Booker can’t knock Biden’s health care plan because the minute he does he’ll be asked about his vote to block drug imports from Canada. Last week, Harris unveiled her health care plan. It’s awful. She said “working families” asked her to stretch its implementation over 10 years and cut a fresh slice of the Medicare pie for for-profit insurers. It must be a lie. A reporter should ask her to name one of the families. Harris proudly announced that Kathleen Sebelius, Obama HHS secretary (turned insurance lobbyist), had endorsed it. The reporter should go to her house first.

Health care got harder to compromise last week as both sides dug in. I believe the right public option is the surest, quickest path to universal health care. But every candidate supporting one made it clear they see it as an alternative to single payer, not a transition. When they pretend single payer could cost more than our present parasitical system, they do Trump’s and the devil’s work. It’s what comes from a lifetime spent hanging out with lobbyists and bundlers.

Everyone wants to see Warren and Sanders face off against Biden because the real dividing line is between the middle class and the donor class. Warren and Sanders never attack Obama, Biden or each other and they won’t do it in September. What they will do is compare their ideas and campaigns to his. The facts will be fierce, but the delivery will be civil. It’ll be Biden’s toughest test.

Progressives want to take a new path, but I’ve yet to meet a "Never Bidener." The stakes are too high. To defeat Trump, Democrats need to answer his racism with a message of both racial justice and social conciliation, and answer his corruption with a message of economic justice and political reform. So long as their candidates don’t make a fetish of their small differences, they’ll get there.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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