The Democrats' dilemma: Supposedly they're winning — but their leaders keep on losing

Democrats could be poised for a national victory — just as the aging leadership faces a generational revolt

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 29, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Eliot Engel and Carolyn Maloney (Getty Images/Salon)
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Eliot Engel and Carolyn Maloney (Getty Images/Salon)

Are Joe Biden and the Democrats poised to win a sweeping victory this fall, repudiating the legacy of Donald Trump and winning control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a decade? Yes, or at least that's how it looks right now. But don't let that fool you: They're still a total mess, internally divided, ideologically rudderless, committed to symbolism over substance and run by a feeble and delusional gerontocracy. Other than that, though, everything's great. Vote blue no matter who!

We won't get full results from last week's Democratic primaries in New York and Kentucky for a few more days — welcome to pandemic-era elections! — but a pattern has emerged in 2020 that the high-fiving party regulars who successfully shoved the existentially vague and cipher-like Biden forward as the party's standard-bearer didn't see coming. 

Rep. Eliot Engel, a 30-year incumbent from the Bronx who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee — and who was endorsed by Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and backed with millions of super PAC dollars — appears to have been conclusively defeated by Jamaal Bowman, a Black middle-school principal endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sure, that's just one race in one deep-blue district, but it was absolutely a proxy war between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez (whose district adjoins Engel's to the south). Democratic leaders poured immense resources into saving this seat so they could tell AOC to stay in her lane and proclaim the left-wing insurgency defeated. At this writing, it doesn't look like they even kept it close. The question political junkies are already asking is whether AOC is now likely to challenge Schumer for his Senate seat in 2022.

In a wealthier and mostly white suburban district slightly to the north — Bill and Hillary Clinton's home district, in fact — another Black progressive, attorney Mondaire Jones, has almost certainly won the nomination for the seat left open by retiring Rep. Nita Lowey, a longtime Clinton ally. Hillary Clinton didn't officially endorse in that race, but her former campaign chair, John Podesta, along with former Secretary of State John Kerry and former CIA director Leon Panetta, all lined up behind Evelyn Farkas, a Pentagon official under Barack Obama. She will apparently finish third. 

It's not yet clear whether Amy McGrath, the Schumer-favored Kentucky Senate candidate who has raised gobs of money nationwide, has survived her primary against young Black progressive Charles Booker, or whether Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents the richest per-capita congressional district in the nation (largely on the East Side of Manhattan) will prevail in a nail-biter against Indian-American progressive Suraj Patel, who nearly defeated her in 2018. What we know for sure is that those races are closer than anyone expected even a few weeks ago, and that it's time for Democrats to quit pretending that the progressive uprising that began with the 2016 Sanders campaign is a delusional and dangerous Marxist white-boy cult, or simply a fluke.

In other words, in the four highest-profile primary races last week, the party establishment has almost certainly lost two of them — and could end up losing all four. There is a conundrum at work here with no obvious solution: The same factors that have positioned Biden for a sweeping Electoral College victory, and have positioned Democrats for four to six potential pickups in the Senate, are also the factors endangering dug-in Democratic incumbents and establishment candidates across the country. Amid the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, entrenched power is widely viewed with suspicion. Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell may pay the price for that, as they certainly should, but Schumer and Pelosi and Engel and Maloney are not immune just because they represent the so-called opposition.

Democrats are once again chasing public opinion like a dimwitted Labrador chasing a minivan — this time on coronavirus relief, national health care and law enforcement reform — just as they previously did on marriage equality and marijuana legalization. To be fair, their confusion is understandable: Who do they really represent: the white suburban moderates who elected 40 new Democrats to the House in the 2018 midterms, and who poured out in extraordinary numbers to support Biden over Sanders? Or the rebellious progressives who seem intent on overthrowing the establishment in local and state elections? More to the point, amid all the extraordinary ferment of this extraordinary year, is the first group rapidly becoming aligned with the second?

As for my predictions up top, you don't need to lecture me about tempting fate. Of course the future is unwritten, and things may look and feel very different by November. I have previously written about my considerable discomfort with Joe Biden, and I'm honoring my vow to stifle my opinions about him for the next few months. Facts tinged with analysis are another matter: Biden's all-things-to-all-people "gnostic in the basement" strategy is going surprisingly well, perhaps because that's the most sensible approach when your opponent is a stick of dynamite who keeps lighting his hair on fire.

Believe me, I've heard the sermon about how leftists should feel compelled to vote for someone they actively dislike. I have delivered it myself on occasions I would rather not recall, and repudiated it on others. (This is my ninth presidential election as a journalist, and the 13th I can remember with some clarity.) It's a threat wrapped in false promises that has been delivered in nearly every campaign since 1968, and probably further back than that. Anyway, amid the pandemic and the national explosion of outrage against police brutality, Joe Biden is nearly irrelevant. He's a placeholder, the guy who happens to be standing there and is more or less capable of adult behavior at a moment when the public (understandably enough) yearns for it. He may become president, but he will never be more than a historical footnote.

I confidently predicted there would be no "blue wave" in the 2018 midterms (and was grateful to be wrong about that), so it's wise to take the conventional wisdom of this moment, mine and everyone else's, with a mountain of salt. But there's no doubt that fate has given the Democrats two enormous political gifts in 2020, which have exposed Trump's cruelty and incompetence before the whole world. These were dreadful gifts, in terms of the human consequences, but immensely valuable ones in terms of political leverage. Even the Democratic Party's unparalleled ability to squander immense demographic advantages and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory may not be enough to prevent them from winning big.

Even Trump — with his limited ability to comprehend written English, or anything else outside his impermeable penumbra of ego — can read the writing on the wall. He must be suffering a strange internal conflict: He certainly doesn't want to lose the election, but on the other hand, he's obviously not having any fun as president, and his financial opportunities while playing a firebrand ex-president on TV would be unlimited. (Wait, you think a Biden-appointed attorney general will prosecute him for something? That's a good one! Please turn down the sound on MSNBC and take another Xanax.)

Every other Republican candidate or elected official in the nation is starting to feel that scabies-like itching sensation: Their core voters have enthusiastically signed up for a voyage on a ship everyone knew was sinking. Now it's sinking! Do the fleeing rats try to position themselves as smarter and tougher but still Trumpy? (Cough-cough-Tom Cotton!) Do they try to reconstitute some version of the pre-Trump, country-club Republican Party? (LOL Mitt Romney!) Both pathways lead to giant L's, and the third pathway … well, as with the Spanish Inquisition, there is no third pathway.

To return to my opening advisory, don't let the fact that the Republicans appear determined to commit political suicide at all costs fool you into thinking the Democrats have it made in the shade. They're fucked too! I've argued this so many times in so many ways since the 2016 primary campaign that it started to bore me (boring other people first, no doubt), so I quit for a while. But there's considerable truth to the internet truism that the memorably bitter Clinton-Sanders campaign has never ended and keeps reasserting itself in different forms, even now that both principals have eased themselves into the political sunset.

Democratic Party regulars and insiders — an establishment that has lately taken to protesting that it does not exist — have demonized Sanders for the better part of five years now, insisting that his two failed presidential campaigns exposed the party's progressive or "socialist" wing as a pack of millennial dead-enders who were sorta-kinda racist and sexist. If they couldn't quite say that about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's thumping 2018 primary defeat of Joe Crowley, who was then the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, they implied that was a New York-specific fluke in a low-turnout district, which couldn't be replicated anywhere else.

For the most part, the results of the 2018 midterms — in which dozens of moderate or centrist Democrats flipped previously Republican House seats — appeared to support the establishment's view of political reality. But a lot has happened in the last two years — and a lot has not happened too. 

In fairness, the new House majority has passed a lot of reform legislation that Mitch McConnell's Republican Senate majority hasn't even pretended to consider. Nancy Pelosi and her troops of course knew that would happen. They also knew what would happen when they impeached Trump on the narrowest possible grounds, over a murky scandal that no one completely understood and whose fullest dimensions were never explored. That limited scope was presumably all the group of House freshmen variously called the "national security Democrats" or the "CIA Democrats" would support, but it revealed the inescapable fact that the entire impeachment misadventure was political theater, and not in any meaningful sense an attempt to expose the full scope of Trump's wrongdoing.

You know who is 100% correct about this? John Bolton, that's who. Of course Bolton's addictively readable memoir, "The Room Where It Happened," is fueled by his odious views on foreign policy. His primary complaint about Donald Trump — and pretty much everyone else — is that he's a weenie who talks big but refuses to wage old-fashioned wars of imperial aggression. 

But I don't think Democrats have any rebuttal to Bolton's charge that they conducted a hasty, narrowly-focused impeachment, allowing Republicans to retreat to the partisan position that Trump's attempted Ukrainian extortion was incompetent or even reprehensible but didn't represent a pattern of corruption. That's ludicrous, of course, but as Bolton saw it, the entire enterprise was doomed and he wanted no part of it. As he told Judy Woodruff of PBS: "When the Democrats jump off a cliff and [when] they're halfway down, they look up and say to me, and others they could have said it to, 'Why don't you join us?' — it rings hollow."

It's a bit rich, in my view, for a borderline neocon like Rep. Adam Schiff — whose differences with Bolton on foreign policy are mostly about style and rhetoric — to pontificate about patriotic duty while gaslighting the Rachel Maddow crowd with the preposterous claim that Bolton's testimony might have made a difference. Honestly, that's of a piece with the profoundly embarrassing spectacle of Democratic leaders kneeling on the House floor in kente-cloth stoles to honor George Floyd, a "visual stunt," as Doreen St. Félix of the New Yorker put it, that "the Democratic Party, the party of optics and gesture, apparently could not resist."

St. Félix reads the awkward kente moment as a tribute to the "myth of the black monolith" that stands as a central tenet of the Democratic Party. In a recent interview with Salon's Chauncey DeVega, Cornel West was more direct, mocking the "neoliberal milquetoast Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi and others in the Democratic Party leadership, who are putting on kente cloth and acting like somehow they've been on the cutting edge of the struggle for human rights and human dignity and justice."

That brings us full circle to the Democrats' unsolved internal crisis, and to Bernie Sanders' paradigmatic failed campaign in 2016, which exposed the depth of the gulf within the party's voter coalition. That divide was less about policy, narrowly speaking, than about worldview, ideological orientation and generational consciousness. In historical terms, Sanders' second failed campaign, the one recently concluded, was even more instructive. After being ignored as a political leftover for most of 2019, Sanders briefly looked, after New Hampshire and Nevada, as if he might win the nomination — until Biden swept to victory from coast to coast on Super Tuesday, in one of the strangest reversals of political fortune ever seen.

It isn't entirely fair to claim that Sanders' youthful voter base simply didn't show up. In fact, turnout among younger voters was pretty good, in relative terms, and excellent in some places. But it wasn't enough to overcome a massive outpouring of voters over 45, and especially over 65, who overwhelmingly supported Biden. This is a bewildering and dangerous development, not just for the future of the Democratic Party but for the future of democracy, period.

It's the Republicans who are conventionally regarded as the party for fearful older people, suckered in by Sean Hannity and late-night gold-bug infomercials. But nearly the entire Democratic congressional leadership now consists of multi-millionaires over 70 — the top two House Democrats, Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, are 80 and 81, respectively — and their 2020 nominee will become the oldest president in history on the day of his inauguration, should that event occur. 

One way to understand the Democrats' dilemma in confronting both Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter is that the first major generational conflict since the 1960s has suddenly broken out. Both our major political parties stand with old people now, and they're running out of time.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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