There’s a battle underway between the left and the center for the soul of the Democratic Party. On the left, insurgent presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, along with freshman legislators in “The Squad,” labor to pull the reluctant center of the party—embodied by Joe Biden, congressional Democratic leadership, and House moderates—in a more progressive direction.
Because left and center are ideological categories, we tend to track this battle in ideological space, where the main points of conflict are internal to the future of the Democratic Party. Will it be a party that frees itself to chase big goals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal? Or will it be a party that seeks to ratchet down tensions between its base and its donors, by offering the base incremental gains, and asking the wealthy to sacrifice just enough to stave off what Biden described to his donors as “political discord and basic revolution.”
If you follow politics, this is how you’re told the divisions break down, and in obvious ways, it’s true. Warren, Sanders, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are to the left of Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and their shared sense of what the party’s agenda should be is to the left of the party’s actual agenda.
But in a political system as bottlenecked as ours—where a determined minority can upset a governing majority’s best-laid plans, and even the modest goals of the moderate wing face daunting external obstacles—applying a fully internal lens to Democratic infighting cannot fully capture what’s driving the dissension.
Yes, the actors on one side of the debate are more progressive than the actors on the other, but that does not mean they’re principally arguing about whether the Democratic Party should be a “left wing” party. In a best case scenario, Democrats will still have to find points of consensus among themselves. The Democratic Party can not become ideologically homogenous overnight or maybe ever, but it could in theory adopt a new approach to political combat with Republicans. Democratic leaders believe the best way to defeat Republicans is to yield to vulnerable members, who gave the party a brittle grip on power, and who believe the best way to hold on to it is to avoid partisan confrontation whenever possible. What the insurgents argue is not that these moderates should become leftists, but that they stop accommodating their tormentors and learn to fight them.
In an era of Republican lawlessness, under a president who views political conflict in zero-sum terms, the accommodationist approach has magnified the perverse incentives that appeasing enemies always creates.
In seeking to avoid conflict with Trump, Democrats have freed him to trample the rule of law and fair play without any political downside, and set themselves up to be victims of Republican abuses for years to come.
Impeachment is the ultimate source of conflict between a president and Congress, and the power best-suited to holding Trump accountable for his growing list of crimes. Naturally, conflict-averse moderates want no part of such a confrontation, and so Democratic leaders have done everything in their power to stave it off. But when the president is as crooked as Trump, impeachment-phobia also neuters Congress’s much broader power to conduct oversight, because anything the committees of the House investigate might reveal impeachable offenses. In this environment of impunity Trump’s abuses of power have only grown more extreme.
Earlier this month, we learned that shortly after the Senate confirmed Trump’s Attorney General William Barr, federal prosecutors in Manhattan closed an investigation of the illegal hush-money payments Trump facilitated as a candidate to silence his former mistresses. These prosecutors uncovered a criminal conspiracy to defraud voters by violating campaign finance laws, and identified Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, but the evidence that other Trump organization executives, including his son, participated in the conspiracy is public and damning.
It would be natural for Congress to ask whether Trump or Barr interfered in the hush-money investigation. When the FBI closed its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and declined to recommend a prosecution, House Republicans, then in the majority, hauled FBI Director James Comey up to the Hill within 48 hours and demanded he explain himself. Within weeks, they’d obtained the FBI’s entire investigative file. Today, House Democrats have shown no interest in the closure of the hush-money investigation, apparently based on the theory that Trump will become more popular if Congress impeaches him for cheating in the election by paying a porn star hush money, and then obstructing the investigation of that crime.
If you look back on the events of the past couple years with a meek eye, you can see how Democrats might have ended up in this absurd place where they’re scared to draw public attention to an obscene, criminal president’s atrocious behavior.
Trump was supposed to lose the election. When he won, many traumatized Democrats convinced themselves he was invincible. Rather than capitalize on the fact that he’d lost the popular vote by a substantial margin, Democrats immediately submitted to Trump, and offered to work with him on popular public infrastructure projects. Trump’s first two years in office were a horror show of incompetence, racism, plutocracy, and corruption, and powered a grassroots opposition that drove Democrats to a landslide victory in the 2018 elections. But because Democratic candidates in battleground districts campaigned almost exclusively on inoffensive kitchen-table issues like protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions, the lesson the party took from the midterms is that correlation equals causation—that the only way to beat Trump in Republican precincts is to be as milquetoast as possible, and to take no position on any of Trump’s outrages apart from his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The nature of the victory tells another story. Despite Trump’s unpopularity, Democrats were considered underdogs in the race for the House because of how extensively Republicans had gerrymandered districts in swing states. The Democrats’ popular vote margin in 2018 was so large that they might have won back the House no matter what, but a closer look at voting patterns reveals something interesting: Democrats did well in Republican-leaning districts because they had been gerrymandered for the kind of Republican Party that Trump had laid waste to—for well-educated, suburban white Republicans or swing voters who didn’t want to pay higher taxes but also didn’t find vulgar white-identity politics appealing. Democrats won because Trump repelled voters Republicans expected to be able to compete for. And if these anti-Trump voters made the difference between Democratic victory and defeat, the theory that welcoming confrontation with Trump will harm Democratic fortunes in the House begins to fall apart.
The question of which theory of politics Democrats embrace—whether they choose to fight or accommodate—carries enormous stakes, both for the immediate task of defeating Trump in 2020 and for what kind of party Democrats will be if and when they return to power.
In the crudest but most profound sense, Democratic fortunes in both the race for the House and presidency will turn on whether Trump enters the contest closer to the nadir or zenith of his popularity. If Democrats can use their powers to make Trump less popular, they will do themselves a huge favor, and on this score, the non-confrontation approach has been a dismal failure. Democrats let over a quarter of the 116th Congress pass without holding a single public hearing with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s witnesses; without filing suit to enforce any of their subpoenas of current or former Trump administration officials; without pursuing any avenues of investigation that might leave them no choice but to begin impeachment proceedings. They let months lapse before finally suing to enforce their much-delayed subpoena of Trump’s tax returns, contented themselves with passing messaging bills that the media and the Senate have both ignored, and the result is that Trump’s approval ratings are about a point higher now than they were on election night last year.
Like any serious phobia, the Democrats’ conflict aversion has left them unwilling to explore a number of critical vistas. When Trump stood behind his first Labor Secretary Alex Acosta in the face of evidence that he’d helped Trump’s old party pal Jeffery Epstein coverup a child-sex trafficking ring, Pelosi said Acosta’s fate was in Trump’s hands. Democrats limited their official response to circulating a petition calling on Acosta to resign.
Democrats have ignored Trump’s habit of pardoning corrupt cronies, and when Trump and his surrogates interfered in the war-crimes case of a Navy SEAL who fatally stabbed a teenage suspected-ISIS fighter, the House was silent. Limiting ourselves only to the supposedly safe realm of health care, Democrats have taken no major legislative or investigative steps to stop or even draw attention to the fact that Trump forced the Justice Department to ask courts to throw out the entire Affordable Care Act.
At a meeting with insurance executives in 2017, Trump’s federal health programs administrator Seema Verma “stunned insurance industry officials by suggesting a bargain: The administration would fund [contested insurance subsidies] if insurers supported the House Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.” It’s unclear whether this dangling of public funds was illegal or merely corrupt, but moderate House members have shown no awareness of or interest in the allegation that Verma tried to bribe insurance companies with tax dollars to enlist in Trump’s war on pre-existing conditions. In any case, there hasn’t been a hearing on it.
None of this is to say that the protect-the-moderates strategy will doom Democrats to defeat in 2020. The future is murky. All we know for sure is that Trump’s unpopularity—and the intensity of opposition to him—have been defining constants of his presidency.
But an accommodationist approach will have ramifications beyond 2020, stemming both from traps the party has laid for itself today, and from the lessons its leaders will draw from winning while avoiding conflict.
Democrats just agreed to extend the debt limit through July 2021, all but guaranteeing that if a Democrat wins in 2020, his or her presidency will be consumed in its early months fending off Republican sabotage. It’s not obvious how a fight over this extension would have played out under a different set of tactics, but at no point have Democratic leaders taken a public stand for the principle that the rules should apply equally to both parties. It should be unacceptable to Democrats that they responsibly raise the debt limit for Republicans, only for Republicans to turn around and use the debt ceiling to commandeer Democratic presidencies. They could have insisted publicly on terms that would have ended debt limit brinksmanship forever—on eliminating the debt limit altogether, or extending it for a decade or more, or codifying what used to be known a the “McConnell rule,” which delegates the power to increase the debt limit to the president. Conflict avoidance dictated that they not even try.
Now imagine it’s 2021, Democrats control both Congress and the White House, and Republicans threaten to filibuster a debt limit increase unless Democrats agree to gut Medicaid. Will the party that came to power without flexing its muscles have the mettle to beat Republicans without caving or letting them destroy the economy? Will they abolish the filibuster and raise the debt limit on a partisan basis? Will they call the GOP’s bluff? What if Republicans aren’t bluffing? That story might end happily, with minimal damage to the economy, but how much confidence do you have that it will?
The outlook is even bleaker in other realms. Would a Democratic Party that won’t aggressively investigate Trump take any steps after he leaves office to remedy his theft of the judiciary? Or to fix any of the harms he inflicted on the country after breaking the law to win the election? Would this party offer statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico? None of these things will happen without moderates taking and defending tough votes, and the party is priming them every day to expect they’ll never have to do either.
Thus Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) feels not the slightest bit ridiculous arguing that Democrats should reimpose a 60-vote threshold on their judicial nominees, and gets moral support from the party leadership. “When you think about Merrick Garland and what [Mitch] McConnell has done to the Senate, there’s a lot of feelings of vengeance and revenge,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin. “We just hope the better angels of our nature will prevail.”
These “better angels” would presumably exhort liberals to turn the page on a stolen Supreme Court seat and other judgeships, as though we’re animated by hard feelings rather than by the fact that, unless the theft is remedied, the judiciary will mete out illegitimate injustice that hurts millions of people for decades.
It’s no surprise that the countervailing voice in the debate over judges comes from the left, but it turns out the argument isn’t really about leftism versus centrism at all. “Democrats should not play by a different set of rules from Republicans,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said. “We can’t live in a world where the Republicans twist everything their way whether they’re in the majority or the minority and the Democrats just keep trotting along. That’s not working.”
There are naturally other forces at work beyond the question of whether particular Democrats have guts or not. Some centrist Democrats really are enthusiastic supporters of financial capitalism, for instance, and don’t want to make enemies of it. But the theory of conflict aversion says those Democrats should have the final say, where a more confrontational approach would give them a limited one. And that distinction transcends almost every fight in Democratic politics. The conflicts in the House Democratic caucus like those in the Democratic primary evoke the language of ideology from those who say they support democratic socialism, and others who warn the party against moving too far “left.” But the subtext of this dispute is much less morally ambiguous: Should Democrats be afraid or proud of fighting as hard as they can to help as many people as possible? They have spent their first six months in power testing the theory that they can do the most good from a defensive crouch, and it’s gotten them nowhere. Whether they recognize this failure and change course before it’s too late will determine what kind of country we live in for decades to come.