Thursday, April 25, 2019

BTRTN: Joe's In. Now How Can the Dems Avoid Another "Circular Firing Squad" in 2020?

Joe Biden is in the race, and he and Bernie Sanders are the front-runners. Will the two aging warriors simply re-enact the philosophical rift of 2016 and thereby put the 2020 election at risk? If we can see it coming so clearly, Steve asks, can we do something about it?

Well, if finally happened, but it took the long-awaited release of the Mueller Report to do it. After six weeks of riding a media meteor, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was temporarily knocked out of the A bloc on cable news last week. 

Building for weeks, PeteMania reached critical mass when the boyish mayor of South Bend spoke brilliantly in formally announcing his candidacy for President. Pundits drooled at the weapons-grade resume, fly-over charm, and the seemingly bottomless wellspring of wisdom, reason, and insight flowing from the young mayor, creating a black hole for news coverage that sucked the oxygen out of competing campaigns. And when he sent his condolences about Notre Dame to the people of Paris in perfect French… Alors! Sois tranquille mon coeur!

Joe finally knew that he better stop Biden his time, Amy probably realized that she’s getting clobber-chared, and Swalwell’s that ends well... just that quickly, Pete had muscled his way into the top tier.

Bernie Sanders was the only candidate able to hold his media own in the midst of the Butti-fest, gamely going toe-to-toe with Fox News hosts in a town hall meeting. Loaded for Bret Baier, Bernie left his Fox hosts stunned when the audience lustily cheered for Bernie’s Medicare-for-all proposal, and were generally enthusiastic about his challenge to Donald Trump to match Sanders’ release of ten years of tax returns.

Today will be Joe Biden’s day in the sun. The Party's √©minence grise, eternal happy warrior, and occasional grandpa faux pas formally has announced his third run for the White House, a full thirty years after his first try.

What with Mueller, Barr, talk of impeachment, PeteMania, and now Joe's launch, it’s fair to assume that you may have missed two lesser tidbits that have interesting implications for the Democrats going into 2020.

A few days back, speaking in Germany, Barack Obama spoke about the danger of rigid philosophical positions and extremist views in the progressive space. He issued a clear warning to the Democratic Party: the danger of ideological litmus tests is that they alienate Democrat from Democrat, and can create the sliver of an opening that is all Donald Trump will need to be re-elected.

"Among progressives in the United States ... is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, 'Uh, I'm sorry, this is how it's going to be…creating what's called a 'circular firing squad' where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues."

Barack Obama has generally been very reserved about leveraging his role as the senior statesman of the Democratic Party. When he chooses to speak, we would all be wise to listen.

His message was a warning that the growing rift between ideologically-fixed progressives and centrist pragmatists could rip the party asunder, much as the Tea Party did to the Republican Party, turning the once-proud GOP into a soulless swamp of spineless suck-ups, sycophants, and slime. We have met the enemy, Obama was saying, and he or she may be us. Donald Trump may not be able to beat the Democrats, but internecine warfare could. 

Please, the forty-fourth President seemed to be pleading, please don’t do that again.

However deftly delivered, Obama’s message probably landed like salt on unhealed wounds among those who continue to litigate the 2016 campaign. Supporters of Hillary Clinton still harbor resentment at what they perceive to have been the tepid support Bernie Sanders offered for their candidate. Bernie supporters, in turn, believe that the Democratic establishment rallied in 2016 to guide the nomination to a flawed and ultimately losing candidate. Perhaps even more profoundly, Sanders’ supporters may believe that the centrists had their shot in 2016, and that 2020 is their time. 

Have any doubt that the animosity lingers? That leads to the second news item that was overwhelmed by Mueller Madness and PeteMania. The New York Times reported that Sanders had sent a def con 5 letter to a liberal think tank with close ties to the Clintons claiming that it was “using its resources to smear him.” Sanders charged that The Center for American Progress was using the news that Bernie’s best-selling book had made him a millionaire as grounds for characterizing his “common man” appeal as disingenuous. 

The unfriendly fire smolders. Still.

Call it a case of ABiden’ Heart Bern: it is the fear that the ideologues and centrists have already cast their support in stone. The most progressive wing of the party could rigidly align behind Sanders or Warren, and may not be wholly committed to a ticket that does not have one of these candidates on the top. That would be an extremely dangerous situation for the Democrats. In an aggregated look at recent polls, the Sanders/ Warren segment of the party represents a full a quarter to a third of the voters.

Exacerbating the problem: these candidates may be more polarizing than the centrists. A recent Monmouth University poll of Iowa voters showed that the two candidates with the highest “unfavorable” ratings among Democrats were Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. It could be that the very extremity of their positions invites a binary reaction. So centrists are likely to return the favor… if Sanders or Warren wins, they may be cool to the ticket, and less likely to turn out to vote.

No wonder Barack Obama is already worried. It’s pretty easy to see that the internecine battle of 2016 could be rekindled with Bernie re-enacting his role as the “outsider,” and Joe Biden inheriting the Hillary Clinton role as the pragmatic centrist, the darling to the party establishment. If the epic struggle between the two wings of the party is replicated in 2020, the collateral damage could be handing the White House to Donald Trump for a second time.

Add to the toxic soup one final dollop of unsavory reality: the younger of these two guys was the one born eleven months after Pearl Harbor. The two front-runners for the Democratic Presidential nomination for most profound election of our lifetime are two aging white guys who each now lead the opposite ends of the ideological split that is rending the Democratic Party. 

It is a formula for disaster.

But if we can see it so much more clearly this time – and so far in advance – can we not take steps to avoid the type of bitter alienation that costs the party the votes it will need to beat Trump?

For starters, this backdrop might begin to explain the startling appeal of a 37-year-old gay mayor of a small mid-western city. Sure, Pete Buttigieg is brilliant, articulate, original, and has a ready answer to every question that is thrown his way.  But perhaps a different reason for his appeal is that a portion of the Democratic electorate has already intuited that it must cut bait on the debacle of 2016 and find an entirely new answer. The answer to Donald Trump does not lie in going back to the grizzled party veterans. It is time for a clean slate, fresh blood, no biases, and no clan-like behavior.

A bit like what happened in 2008 with a fresh newcomer named Barack Obama.

It is, as Mayor Pete has so eloquently noted, time to reframe the essential issue. The very existence of Democratic “sub-brands” (“progressive ideologues,” “democratic socialists,” and “pragmatic centrists”) cuts the party into slivers at a time when it most needs to be united. Buttigieg is trying to define this election in new terms by providing a holistic framework that is not based on old labels. While his competitors seem to be drifting toward single issue candidacies – Kamala Harris with education, Cory Booker with justice, Jay Inslee with climate change – Buttigieg has created a generational and values based message that unifies a wide range of policy issues. The youngest candidate is creating the biggest tent.

Which brings us once again back to the wisdom of Obama. 

In sending his warning to the ideological wing of the Democratic Party, Obama is making a simple point: ideologies do not win elections. Human beings do. The best ideas conveyed in a weak vessel will not win. And just as surely, a wobbly message in a charismatic vessel is not going to carry the day either, as Beto O’Rourke is discovering as he is works his way toward his own clear and differentiating message. 

Obama is asking that we make sure that we have both, in balance. A powerful candidate who can connect with voters, and whose heart and whose policy mostly in the right place. Passionate policy ideologues believe that the candidate who is most aggressive in espousing progressive ideology is the right candidate.  The most strident advocates of the most “democratic socialism” policies – single payer healthcare as the most obvious example – have already picked their candidate. Most likely it is Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. They have already decided.

But the centrists, on the other hand, are more inclined to see who emerges as the most effective, compelling, and persuasive campaigner. They are scattered across a wide spectrum of candidates, and are likely most found in the “no preference” category in the early polling. By definition, they are more open-minded to learn about each candidates. It’s easy to know what policies candidates support. But only time will tell if they can prove themselves to be winners. 

Ideologues are lukewarm about centrists candidates because they think they are wishy-washy on policy. Centrists are lukewarm about ideologue candidates because they think their extreme policy stances and rigidity make them unelectable.

Here’s a crazy theory: one wonders if “Joe Biden” is actually really that high up in the polls, or if “Joe Biden” is simply a placeholder for a candidate who is really named “the person with the best shot at beating Trump.” Whereas a Bernie supporter is passionate because he or she believes that universal healthcare is critical, a “Biden” supporter passionately believes that the most important task is to beat Trump. 

Barack Obama is telling us not to shoot each other over rigid policy litmus tests, but to find out which candidate has the best chance to beat Donald Trump, and then rally behind him or her.

Which, in the end, is the entire point. How do Democrats slog through a year of internecine debate, conflict, possible animosity, and lingering anger, and manage to emerge completely unified in the urgent need to defeat Donald Trump?

Here’s a wild wish: we all ought to make our donations to Democratic candidates conditional. What if we demanded that every candidate offer this option on their fundraising page:

“I am sending this check to Juli√°n Castro on the following conditions:

1. That Mr. Castro commits to rigorously supporting the candidate who emerges as the winner of the Democratic nomination. 
2. That Mr. Castro vows that he will not run negative attack ads against fellow Democrats.
3. That Mr. Castro will provide access to his list of donors and supporters to the Democratic Party for general election purposes whether he is the candidate or not.

If Mr. Castro fails to meet this standard, I will demand the return of my contribution.” 

It may be crazy, unworkable, and unrealistic. But it makes a point. The dollar I am giving to you is in part supporting you, but it is also an investment in beating Donald Trump. I demand a full return on my investment.

Which brings us back to the soaring ascent of Pete Buttigieg, who is simply proving that Barack Obama is right. People vote for human beings, not for policies. Only the human beings who win the White House are in a position to enact policies. People are responding to Mayor Pete's authenticity, his reason, his decency... and perhaps, above all, that he seems intent on taking the fight to Trump, not to his competitors for the nomination.

No one in the democratic, liberal, or progressive space can afford the heart bern of a divided Democratic party handing over the White House, the government, our democracy, and the future of the planet to another four years of Donald Trump.

Yeah, lots of people are intrigued by Pete Buttigieg. Kamala is an immensely compelling candidate. Bernie Sanders has been the most influential thought leader in the party for years. Joe Biden is an essentially very good human being who could get this country back on track. There are lots of terrific candidates on the Democratic side.

Barack Obama is telling us to not be open or closed to any candidate because they do not meet some ideological litmus test. He is urging us to be open to all the candidates. To listen closely and to learn as much as we can. And then to accept that whoever wins the nomination is the candidate of all of the Democratic Party.  

Most important: he is urging us not to inflict needless wounds and collateral damage on the very individuals we may turn to in order to save this country from Trump.

In the end, we -- as voters -- should make a pledge that mirrors what we would ask of candidates: 

"Whoever wins the nomination, I pledge that I will fight tooth and nail for his or her election. This election is too important to let disappointment, alienation, anger, or frustration cause any one of us to turn away from job #1: ending the Presidency of Donald Trump."

Listen to the words of the greatest President of our era, who warned us of circular firing squads. 

Be open minded. Listen. Learn. Take your time. 

Sure, you can tell your friends that you already know who you are going to support.

Tell them that his or her name is “the person with the best shot at beating Donald Trump.”

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  1. The takeaway from the current situation is interesting --- it is that the means and the end are one and the same. If the end goal is political power, then it does not matter who is president. Political power is always divisive, observation #2. The party in power is always like, "Having a terrible time, wish you were here." So political power is the opposite of democracy; what is desperately needed is balance. Balance cannot be achieved unless it is demanded --- and seekers of political power rarely demand balance. Balance requires no conflict of interest, and to sum up the Trump presidency, it is Conflict of Interest in spades. So we need to learn a lesson --- will we learn it? That is the question in 2020 and every other counted year.

  2. Granted, I may have something of a personal friendship bias, but the commentary of the two brothers is among the best around.

  3. Thank you for your insightful analyses.

    Obama is right to identify the danger of a divided Democratic Party.

    I’m an independent who generally votes Democrat. I supported Sanders in 2016. As Clinton did not need my vote to beat Trump in my state, in the general I protest-voted for Sanders via write-in. (Had I been in a battleground state, I’d have cast a vote against Trump, by holding my nose and voting for Clinton.) I do not care about a candidate’s skin color, genitalia, or with whom they sleep: I care about economic inequality, civil rights, and democratic reform. I require my candidate to have a track record proving their commitment to their professed positions.

    Currently I support Sanders, Warren, and, as a kind of “fall back,” Buttigieg.

    Speaking as a progressive… many mainstream Dems remain bitterly resentful of Sanders and his supporters, utterly glossing over the political reality that 43% of their party’s electorate, 12 million, voted for Sanders in 2016. Does 43% qualify as a fringe?

    The Democratic Party insiders actively worked against Sander’s campaign, as touched on by Michael Moore in his film *Fahrenheit 11/9*. These operatives are seemingly more interested in party politics than genuine democracy. This is what I consider the real danger for us as a society.

    There are four meaningful “clouds” of constituency in our electorate: nationalist populists (Trumpists), ~20-25%; engaged political moderates, ~25-27%; far left progressives, ~5-7%; the politically disengaged, ~41-50%. In the 2016 general election, 48% of potential voters, more than 100 million people, did not participate — overwhelmingly, because they don’t think democracy works (“My vote doesn’t make a difference; no matter who wins, I’m still screwed, so why bother?”) This largest voting bloc, the disengaged, tends to be young, poor, Hispanic or Asian and, statistically, Democrat-leaning. They are an implicit indemnification of our “democracy”.

    As a progressive: Obama... I shake my head. Obama put Wall Street financier and tax-dodger Timothy Geithner in charge of the Treasury Department’s 2008 response. Obama killed more people with missile drones than Bush 43. Obama did not close Guantanamo, did not wind down our foreign wars. Obama presided over TARP, giving billions to banks without condition, so the bankers held on to their stabilizing capital, and paid themselves million dollar bonuses. Where were our S&L Crisis-style public hearings? What happened to accountability? Why did no Wall Street bankers go to prison?

    Is this desire for justice “naive”?

    The only thing Obama did of merit, other than maintaining a “No Drama Obama” posture of presidential gravitas, is pass the ACA, a “halfway covenant” that cannot last: it will either evolve into single payer, or be dismantled by big business. This alone, in 8 years? Apparently “Black Jesus” never got out of the tomb…

    Brad De Long has put it best: professional Democrats should stop trying to make common cause with Republicans, and instead find common cause with the progressive wing of their own party (that 43%, those ~12 million engaged voters). They should make sure their 2020 ticket has someone on it that appeals to Millennials (who are much further left than “professional” Democrats). Give the progressives and the young people a reason to show up and vote for your ticket. The burden, here, is on “professional” Democrats.

    A litmus test for progressivism is Medicare For All. It polls at 56% in this month’s KFF poll — Medicare For All, which Bernie kept repeating like a mantra, normalizing it.

    Perhaps instead of framing “the problem” as intransigent progressive ideologues dooming the Democrats’ chances in 2020, it should be framed as party insiders being overly beholden to Wall Street, and alienated from the electorate. Just sayin'...

    Trump's election was just a symptom or our genuine malaise. A myopic focus of just beating Trump, rather than building a robust coalition and mandate, would be both a tactical and strategic blunder.

    1. The alliances and individual votes of 2016 are not an immutable indication of the status of the electorate of 2016 OR 2020. Claiming a vote for Sanders in the primaries is a marker of the strength of the "progressive wing" of the party is a very incomplete account of the campaign then: I know several who voted for Sanders who were motivated primarily by opposition to a political "second act." I met one who voted against her due to a fear of the "oppo research" blitz that would come. I know one older Democrat who voted for Sanders mainly as a "balancing" vote to his wife's unquestioning support of Clinton. All of those had little to do with being "progressive."

      People vote for all sorts of reasons -- in favor of a personality, a policy agenda, or a movement; in opposition to a personality, an agenda, or a movement. Similarly, party leaders (or those I consider to be party workers) tend to be there for a variety of reasons, developing a coalition for election and serving to build the Democratic Party as best they can.

      Appealing to progressives and Millennials is a fine idea. So is appealing to pragmatists and Black women. Each campaign has a theory of how to win the nomination and position themselves for the general election. No one will fully satisfy the desires of 65-70 million voters likely to be needed to win in 2020.

      Taking just one point of policy specifically: Medicare for All. You say 55% in the KFF tracking poll favor it. It is worth noting KFF has a few more details.

      * Democrats say they like the idea: "the share of Democrats who now say they have a “very positive” reaction to the term “Medicare-for-all,” from 49 percent in 2017 to 58 percent."
      * But even among Democrats, only 47% say implementing a national Medicare-for-all plan [is a top priority], following lower drug bills and maintaining protection for pre-existing conditions.
      * An earlier month's commentary on the Tracking Poll found "Public’s Views Of Medicare-For-All Can Shift Significantly After Hearing Information." Look at Table 6 at

  4. Numerically, black women voters are the core of the Democratic Party. The 2020 ticket must have their support. So which candidates appeal to them?

    Biden, certainly. But Sanders as well, actually, particularly with black women *under 50*.

    At this point in 2007, Hillary Clinton was still polling better with black women than Barack Obama did, so… it’s still early days. One theory about Obama’s candidacy is that support for him among black voters grew as younger voters convinced their elders he was “electable”.

    To another of your points, granted: some Sanders voters in 2016 weren’t / aren’t progressives; it was essentially a 2-person primary. 2020 will be far more complex -- but for the first time the Millennials will outnumber Boomers, and they skew decidedly left. *If* they vote, that will make an impact.

    Meanwhile, of the 27% of Democratic voters who say they are unlikely to change their minds about their candidate, Biden has 28%, Sanders 26% — a core of roughly 7.6% for Biden, 7% for Sanders:

    For Sanders, more opportunity probably lies outside the Democratic Party: independents, young/new/disengaged voters, former Trump voters, etc. Of the Democratic candidates, I suspect Sanders’ “folksy outrage” may flip more Trump voters than other competitors. If they vote in the Dem primary, that’s another incremental advantage for Sanders. It’s going to be a complex primary with many factors.

    Personally I don't need Sanders to win or even be on the ticket, I just need a progressive reformer on the ticket. What the DNC needs to pay attention to is how much energy goes to progressive candidates, collectively. If they ignore that, they'll hamstring their own future.

    Yes, the KFF metrics are complex/nuanced. My point was simply that something that was politically “unthinkable” as recently as 2015 is now rapidly normalizing — and that’s thanks to “crazy” progressives (certainly not Democratic moderates).

    For moderate Democrats who are skeptical about Medicare For All, or oppose it, I point them to three things: 1. The many studies that show the cost savings of single-payer systems to average Americans, 2. The recent Fox New’s town hall with Sanders, when Baier asked who in the room would trade their private healthcare insurance for Medicare For All, and virtually every arm went up, and 3. the fact that at this very moment, there are 6,582 people literally begging for money on to buy insulin.

    Implementing a transition to single payer will be a challenge. Fortunately, we have experts like William Hsiao of Harvard. As for paying for it? Tax the rich, who can easily afford it, and slash and restructure defense spending: we don’t need to be giving tax money to Halliburton, Erik Prince’s Academi mercenaries, or hyper-complex war machines designed to fight the last war.

    Again: running a campaign to simply “beat Trump” is setting the bar far too low. That was Hillary Clinton’s strategy, and she lost. It is also clearly Biden’s strategy: "Don't rock the boat or be distracted by sweeping proposals to deal with our inequalities or respond to the climate threat: focus! Focus on just beating Trump!…" It's cynical and despicable. If we confronted Trump’s lawlessness *legally*, via impeachment, we wouldn’t need to “solve” it politically, via an election.

    The Democratic “machine,” party loyalists and “Clintonistas”… in 2016 they put the most qualified candidate in our history up against one of the least popular candidates in modern memory, and still managed to lose. Why should I have faith in their judgment, leadership, values, or priorities? The Democratic Party is failing us, just not as severely as the Republicans… I'll respect and trust mainstream Democrats when they demonstrate they deserve it.


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