One year after Donald J. Trump’s election, which party’s troubles strike you as looking more like a war movie directed by Daffy Duck? For a while, the GOP’s devolution into a Pennsylvania Avenue food fight was getting all the attention, and rightly so. All happy political parties are alike, but every unhappy one is unhappy in its own way. After a generation of marching in lockstep, the Republicans’ version was more of a deviation from tradition.
The latest chapter got underway sometime during the 17th century, otherwise known as September. That was when Roy Moore won Alabama’s GOP primary over the grudgingly Trump-endorsed Establishment favorite, Luther Strange. Then October brought denunciations of Trumpism from former Senate loyalist Bob Corker, former Senate “Who he?” Jeff Flake and former POTUS George W. Bush.
Next came ousted White House insider Steve Bannon’s threat to provoke a GOP “civil war” by scraping up as many pro-Trump extremists as possible to run against Republican incumbents in the 2018 primaries. Bannon also compared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Julius Caesar before wondering “Who’s going to be Brutus?” At this brackish moment in American political life, however, invoking assassination as a remedy doesn’t make the Beltway punditocracy so much as break wind in dismay anymore.
But meanwhile, the Democrats—what of the Democrats? Their status as the country’s preeminent effed-up political organization was suddenly and bewilderingly at risk. By the end of last month, this had plainly aroused their competitive instincts in a way that dull twaddle like winning elections does not—or had not until yesterday’s big small wins in civic races across the nation.
The big bang was onetime DNC chair Donna Brazile’s new book Hacks: The Inside Story of The Break-ins And Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in The White House. At least in the advance excerpts, its major revelation was that Hillary Clinton’s campaign had demanded—and gotten—considerable influence over the DNC’s primary-season decision-making in exchange for shoveling big bucks from Hillary’s fat war chest into the DNC’s depleted one. The financial arrangement has been known for some time, but the quid pro quo’s specifics became national news.
The anti-Trump movement have energized political newcomers who resemble a left-wing answer to the Tea Party.
Brazile’s explosive use of the word rigged inflamed Sanders’ partisans, who usually need inflaming the way a blazing house needs napalm. Doing her best to walk back the R-word as anything more than a hypothetical possibility that had worried her, she told ABC’s This Week that she’d found no evidence—“none whatsoever”—of any such scurrilousness. Because Brazile was obviously in damage-control mode, it might not be unreasonable to take this claim with a grain of salt, or maybe a pillar of it.
But even if she was being as truthful as a nun describing her sex life, our Tweeter-in-Chief was on the rampage by then. Treating Brazile’s sort-of bombshell as the clinching proof he’d been right all along to want Crooked Hillary jailed, Trump urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice to investigate “the real story on collusion.” Succumbing to yet another spasm of nostalgia for democracy, the capital’s gatekeepers quickly noted that wanting to sic the DoJ on the opposition to criminalize a whole political party was a banana-peel republic move even by Trump’s standards.
On the other hand, what prompted Brazile’s apparent attempt to delegitimize Clinton’s campaign after the fact? She was brought in as DNC chair to replace deplorable basket case Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who had to go once Wikileaks outed her as a clumsily pro-Hillary, anti-Bernie fool. Even so, Brazile wasn’t what you’d call impartial; she ended up getting canned by CNN after a later Wikileaks document dump revealed that she’d taken advantage of her day job to feed Clinton debate questions in advance. But she’d plainly like to have a future in Democratic politics, and Hacks amounts to a sledgehammer announcement that the Clinton era is overdue for a trip to the junkyard.
As we’ve said before, Trump is wrong to think that Democrats will never stop wanting to re-litigate the 2016 election. But re-litigating the 2016 primaries is a different story, and it sometimes seems the wrangling will continue even after Hillary and Bernie are just memories. The first post-election showdown came last February, when Clinton-friendly centrist Tom Perez narrowly edged out Sanders ally Keith Ellison to become the DNC’s new boss. Perez then made Ellison his deputy, creating an illusion of comity. But it didn’t last. Last month, Perez ousted several prominent Sanders (and Ellison) supporters from their posts, signaling that the usual mellifluous sticks in the mud were back in firm control of the party machinery.
Superficially, this doesn’t make much sense. Being perceived as the Establishment candidate was a big part of what did Clinton in last November. Between them, Sanders’s insurgent campaign and the anti-Trump movement have energized legions of political newcomers who resemble a left-wing answer to the Tea Party far more than they do standard-issue Democrats. That’s the riled-up constituency the party has to appease and/or corral to have any hope of regaining a Congressional majority and, eventually, the White House.
You’d think the Dems would be thrilled to have so many passionate activists helping a progressive comeback, but you’d be wrong.
The tricky part is that its members vocally favor an agenda at considerable odds with the party elders’ calcified idea of what the traffic will bear. For instance, it’s already clear that anybody eyeing a run for the Democratic nomination in 2020 had better come out for single-payer health care, practicalities be damned. This sort of thing could put the Democrats in danger of actually behaving like the nation’s leftist party for a change, something that Clintonism was expressly designed to avoid.
Nonetheless, you’d think the Dems would be thrilled to have so many passionate activists helping to rev up the engine for a big-time progressive comeback once the current, highly unpopular Republican regime goes into meltdown mode. But you’d be wrong, because passionate activists are anathema to mainstream political parties. In fact, they’re the reason the GOP no longer looks much like a mainstream one. Along with deep-pocketed donors, docile loyalists—the Walking Dead kind who’d glumly pull the lever for a Michael Dukakis or a Mitt Romney just because of the “D” or “R” next to their names—are always much more welcome.
Methuselan Democrats can remember the last time they let these maniacs gets their hands on the steering wheel. That was in 1972, leading to the bumptious convention that nominated George McGovern, who lost 49 states and left the party virtually rudderless for decades. You could say that letting the crazies take over led to Electoral College victory in Trump’s case, but no sane Republican believes that Trump’s win is a blueprint for the GOP’s long-term viability. Ensuring long-term viability is what any party’s institutional apparatus is primarily devoted to, which was why the DNC’s favoritism for Clinton over Sanders was unremarkable. Even if Bernie had become the nominee and beaten Trump, which is far from certain, party regulars wouldn’t have understood why—and that prospect no doubt unnerved them.
If they’re now unnerved anyway, one reason is that neither the hardcore Sandersistas nor the anti-Trump grass roots feel any attachment to the Democratic party as such. They haven’t been involved long enough to acquire the habit of disappointment, either. If they don’t get what they want (spoiler alert: they won’t), they’ll just take their votes elsewhere—to a third party, most likely, almost always a doomsday scenario for whichever mainstream party takes the hit—or decide political life inside the system isn’t for them.
In the pre-Trump era, the GOP was able to keep its right-wing zealots placated with red-meat rhetoric because, from hostility to uppity minorities to hating on Roe v. Wade, their grievances were essentially permanent. The left-wing version is a lot more precarious, since the Sanders faction is at least partly rooted in a cult of personality and groups like Indivisible won’t have much reason to stay motivated the minute Trump exits public life. In other words, the Democrats could wind up catering to this motley activist crew and then discover their new coalition is built on sand.
They’ve convinced themselves that Trump’s collapse is so certain that they don’t need to do a damn thing except wait him out.
The problem is that ignoring them —the way House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, among others, so dearly hopes she can—is a non-starter. When Elizabeth Warren told CNN’s Jake Tapper last Thursday that she does believe the DNC rigged the primaries in Clinton’s favor, it was a clear signal that Warren knows the playbook for success in national Democratic politics is going to be rewritten before the next presidential race, either with or without her help, and she’d prefer it was the latter. But any other liberal Democrat contemplating a 2020 White House run must be feeling rattled that Kamala Harris, despite being African American, female and hailing from the bluest state in the country, is already being attacked for being insufficiently progressive. Is that a new kind of political math to reckon with or what?
Merely opposing Trump is no surefire ticket to distinction, either. Most polls say that a majority of Americans don’t think the Democrats stand for much else, and that’s a potentially fatal perception. The policy bleats from the party’s leadership as next year’s midterms loom have been feckless, but even a bolder package probably wouldn’t get much traction for lack of a persuasive spokesmodel. Back in 1994, Newt Gingrich was able to get Republicans fired up about his “Contract With America” because he was a political rock star, but who’d describe Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that way? They’re both skillful politicians behind closed doors, but pure chloroform as advocates for any inspirational agenda.
There may be another reason they aren’t slouching toward the 2018 midterms with noticeable zest. Although Pelosi would no doubt love to get her Speaker’s gavel back, she probably knows that recapturing the House will be a very mixed blessing. Assuming Trump hasn’t left office by then, impeaching him will be what the party’s rank and file will scream for. Two years of utter failure to either get Trump out of the White House or accomplish much of anything else would leave the Democrats looking like an awfully abject bunch by the time 2020 rolls around.
Either on or off Capitol Hill, the party could really use a rock star. Barack Obama doesn’t count, and neither does Bill Clinton. True, there’s always Joe Biden, the man Brazile has now revealed she considered replacing Hillary with when Clinton fell ill and tried to conceal it on the campaign trail. (That bit of inside dish must have infuriated Clinton more than the palaver about her deal with the DNC.) But while Biden could conceivably have reconciled the Clinton and Sanders factions in 2016, it’s not likely he’d be able to do the same in 2020. That’s partly because the Rolling Stones could hire him as an opening act to make themselves seem younger, and 68-year-old Elizabeth Warren and 66-year-old Al Franken aren’t too far behind Biden in that department.
One reason the animosities between Hillary-ites and Bernie-bros are still festering a year after Election Day is that nobody has emerged to take either one’s place. We don’t mean as a potential presidential candidate, because 2020 is a long way off, but simply as a figure with the Gingrich-style vigor to make a convincing case for the Democrats as the best alternative to Trump in particular and the GOP in general. If someone from inside the party doesn’t emerge to fill that role, the odds are that someone from outside it will. In fact, it’s rare for any activist movement as sizeable as the anti-Trump “resistance” to go on even this long without producing at least one telegenic firebrand.
Trump’s personality may be atrocious, but it’s clearly more compelling than an opposition with no personality at all. The revulsion he’s inspired among millions of Americans who never thought of themselves before as particularly political, let alone radical, is matched these days only by the institutional Democratic party’s fogbound complacency. It’s as if they’ve convinced themselves that Trump’s collapse is so certain that they don’t need to do a damn thing except wait him out before getting back to business as usual. But business-as-usual is just what voters don’t want, and a party that’s apparently pinning its hopes on Robert Mueller releasing the pee tape or the GOP’s Capitol Hill panjandrums deciding it’s straitjacket time doesn’t have much credibility when it comes to steering the country’s future—or its own.