Tread Carefully, Democrats

Michael Punke
Mar 19 · 4 min read

Michael Punke

It’s campaign launch season, and many of the Democratic presidential aspirants have launched with speeches highlighting their desire to reunite Americans in the face of a President who seeks every day to divide us. It’s a noble and vital cause. But Democrats will fail to unite the country if they can’t first unite their own party. To do so will require a degree of tolerance for different viewpoints that seems less and less evident with each day as the party’s rhetoric lurches sharply to the left.

There are three reasons for Democrats to take a broader view.

First and most importantly, this is a moment in history calling for a great and wise leader who can bridge the gaps between diverse points of view. Democrats who disdain Donald Trump’s deliberate attempts to divide the nation for personal aggrandizement must offer a different path forward, rediscovering the ties that bind Americans together. President Lincoln, who served during the most divisive years in our nation’s history, and whom we rightly lionize today as our greatest president, implored his compatriots on the eve of the Civil War that “[w]e are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Then he pled for heeding the call of our “better angels.” Near the end of the war, in which more than 600,000 Americans had just died at the hand of other Americans, Lincoln urged the citizenry to harbor “malice towards none, charity towards all.” Think about that as you’re yelling at your TV.

If the moral imperative of this moment is insufficiently persuasive, Democrats should consider that they dramatically lessen their chances of winning the presidency if they choose to excommunicate the moderate wing of their party. The most direct path for Democrats to assemble 270 Electoral College votes in 2020 is to win back the states they never should have lost to Trump in 2016 — places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida. These states alone represent 96 Electoral College votes. (Trump won with 36 more Electoral College votes than the 270 he needed.) Flip half of these states back to Democratic, and the Democrat wins the presidency. President Obama won all of those states in 2012 except North Carolina.

The notion that swing voters in these states desire a leftward lurch in American politics is suspect at best. Despite the higher profile of newly elected Democrats representing the left wing of the party, the Democrats actually elected in the 2018 congressional elections point toward greater success by moderates. The Democrats don’t control the House of Representatives today because left-wing Democrats beat marginally less left-wing Democrats in the primary of some forever-Democratic district. Democrats now control the House because a sufficient number of moderate Democrats beat Republicans to flip districts that actually were in play. The 2020 presidential election will be decided on similar ground.

The fear that moderate Howard Schultz could tip the 2020 election to Donald Trump by dividing the Democratic vote is legitimate, and I hope that Schultz will keep his promise not to be the agent that reelects Trump. But the vitriol aimed at Schultz for having the courage of his convictions is alienating many Americans who don’t see much of themselves in either party today. Incredibly, Schultz has sparked nearly as much antipathy as Trump himself among the orthodoxy cardinals of the Democratic Party for having the temerity to believe that the two established parties don’t have a God-given (or constitutional) monopoly to decide who runs for president. Deriding Schultz’s ideas is also to deride millions of Americans whose votes the Democrats will need in 2020 and beyond.

There are thoughtful and principled people who care deeply about climate change, but raise reasonable questions about the workability and cost of many elements of the Green New Deal — some of which has nothing to do with the environment. Likewise, people who believe that all Americans deserve healthcare can reasonably question the impact on their family of abolishing private insurance. Many who want greater economic equality are skeptical about government redistribution of income. Democrats who rightly find laughable the notion that “Mexico will pay for the wall” or “Brexit will be easy” cannot then glibly ignore the practical questions that go along with governing. Sloganeering is easy. Governing is hard.

Which raises the final reason for Democrats to cultivate the moderates in their fold. The essence of our Constitution is government designed to require compromise. The Founders hated kings, and created a government that makes the exercise of kingly, absolutist power extremely difficult. Democrats who aspire not only to win back the presidency — but also to effect change — will need to form uncomfortable coalitions with people who don’t share their precise view of the world.

I can’t explain the strange grip of Trump on Republicans today, though I hope it will weaken as they reflect on their own role in history. What Democrats will do at this critical historical juncture remains unknown, but signs of emerging ideological purity tests are ominous.

Six weeks before he was assassinated, Lincoln summed up his wisdom from presiding over the nation during civil war. He called on his fellow citizens to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and to “do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Americans forget too easily, but today we should remember, as Lincoln urged, to cherish a legacy for which generations have sacrificed, some with their lives.

History today has placed the yoke of great responsibility on the shoulders of Democrats. Let’s hope they are wise enough to rise to this occasion, so that generations from now, future Americans will study their actions with reverence and respect.

Michael Punke was US Ambassador to the World Trade Organization during the Obama Administration and is author of The Revenant.

Michael Punke

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Author of The Revenant and other books on Western history | Former US Ambassador to the WTO in Geneva