OPINION — “Democrats in disarray” is one of those alliterative phrases beloved by pundits and political reporters. Database searches can trace it back to the Eisenhower administration, and the expression came into its own during the period when the Vietnam War upended politics.
At the end of the first year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, New York Times columnist James Reston (under a headline that you can easily guess) wrote, “It is not only power that corrupts but sometimes the absence of power, and the Democrats are following the familiar pattern. They are complaining about the failure of Republican leadership and providing very little of their own.”
It seems inevitable that this story line would reemerge now that we are in political limbo, with most congressional primaries over and the fall campaigns yet to begin. So an emblematic story led Sunday’s New York Times under the print headline, “Democrats Brace as Storm Brews Far to Their Left.”
The themes of the Times story and dozens like it are familiar. They all highlight young activists such as 28-year-old giant slayer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upended potential Nancy Pelosi successor Joe Crowley in the New York primary. Risky issues are highlighted as main stream Democrats recoil from demands for single-payer health insurance and the abolition of ICE (the acronym for Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
Meanwhile, a moderate Democratic group, the Third Way, hosted an invitation-only conference in Columbus, Ohio, to counter the ideological influence of Bernie Sanders and his ardent supporters. Referring to what she called a Midwestern “silent majority,” Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos said, “There’s a lot of people that just don’t really like protests and don’t like yelling and screaming.”
Yet by the historical standards of Democratic internecine warfare, today’s disputes are like 6-year-olds battling with foam swords.
Where’s the strife?
It’s hard to identify a Senate or House seat that is being lost because of excessive Democratic activism. Even if a Democratic incumbent like North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is troubled by calls to ax ICE, there is scant evidence that this makes her more vulnerable than before in a state that Donald Trump carried by better than a two-to-one margin.
For a party supposedly riven by unbridgeable chasms, the Democrats survived the primaries without major stumbles. This year, there are no Democratic challengers in winnable seats who have been forced to go on television to explain, “I am not a witch.” And in California’s top-two “jungle primary,” the Democrats avoided squandering any potential House pickups by making sure they got a candidate onto the ballot in all contested districts.
Nor are this year’s congressional races some overwrought struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party. Presidential candidates, rather than congressional contenders, define the direction of a party. The current Republican Party is a haunted-house image of Trump rather than a reflection of the economic issues that animated GOP congressional candidates in 2014 and 2016.
Even the left-wing Democratic slogans that so alarm centrists are a little less fearsome on closer examination.
The promise of single-payer (that is, federal government) health coverage represents more aspirational Democratic feeling tones than a realistic policy proposal. No future Congress is likely to take away private health coverage from those Americans who like what they already have. At most, the eventual repair of Obamacare would include the option to allow the uninsured to buy into Medicare or its equivalent.
While GOP attack ads are certain to equate “Abolish ICE” with open borders, the reality is more complex. As even the agency’s website admits, “The majority of immigration enforcement work for ICE takes place in the country’s interior.” It’s the Border Patrol who guard the Rio Grande, while ICE agents are the ones deporting longtime residents without papers who were stopped for minor infractions like broken tail lights in Memphis and Indianapolis.
Pangloss no more
Since everything is judged these days in terms of political messaging, the cry of “Abolish ICE” can be viewed as passionate yet maladroit. More realistic (and more boring) would be the slogan: “Melt ICE and Then Refreeze.” Yet this stance is far from suicidal for most Democratic candidates since, according to a new Pew Research Center poll, slightly more Americans view ICE unfavorably than favorably.
Please understand that I am not trying to emulate a character out of Voltaire’s “Candide” by claiming that the Democrats “live in the best of all possible worlds.”
With more than 100 days to the election, the political atmosphere can shift dramatically based on volcanic eruptions from Mt. Trump. Who can predict what will be dominating the news in early November: Vladimir Putin, the Robert Mueller investigation, escalating threats against Iran, a worldwide trade war, a scorched-earth Supreme Court confirmation battle or the booming economy?
But as a reporter who witnessed the vicious Democratic fights of the last decades of the 20th century, I am impressed by the party’s current sense of unity.
No incumbent — not even Heitkamp or Joe Manchin in West Virginia — is being denounced as a DINO. According to a new Monmouth University Poll, moderate Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb, who won a high-profile special election in western Pennsylvania earlier this year, holds a hefty lead in his bid for a full term. Lamb is a prime example of a Democrat who has prospered by defying litmus-test politics in his opposition to Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.
No party is ever completely unified, not even the Republicans who are fearfully pledging their fealty to Trump. But the Democrats — for all their differences over economics and temperament — recognize the anti-Trump stakes in 2018. And so, for once in their turbulent history, they are more arrayed rather than disarrayed.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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