The Heart of the Matter in the Democratic Debate

Mike Lux
Mike Lux
Nov 18, 2019 · 6 min read

American politics has turned very strange. Of course, much of the reason for that is the truly weird person occupying the White House (and yeah, he’s also corrupt and downright evil, but you can’t deny, he’s just plain weird, too). But it’s definitely not just Trump. Republican sycophancy is at a historic high, and this cycle’s Democratic presidential primary gets pretty high marks for strangeness, too. On the one hand Democrats are 100% fervently united on beating Trump; on the other hand there’s this Grand Canyon like division in the soul of the party, and record setting levels of angst and fear for a party which has been winning most elections lately and whose leading candidates consistently are beating Trump easily in the polls.

We’re at a stage in the presidential primary campaign that we all knew we would get to: this shit is getting real. For most of the campaign up until the last few weeks, candidates were only gingerly poking at each other, worried in a big field about being branded in voters’ minds as the biggest asshole. But at this stage of the race, with the field already beginning to narrow and people wanting to distinguish themselves in different ways, candidates are worried less about that downside.

Presidential primaries are always tough. When I moved to Iowa in 1983, those who had been on Teddy Kennedy’s side and those who had been on Jimmy Carter’s in 1980 were still bitterly divided and talking obsessively about those old divisions. Mondale-Hart, Clinton-Tsongas-Brown, Obama-Clinton were certainly doozies, too. Candidates always battle very aggressively over issues, personalities, character, electability, etc. There’s never been a primary that didn’t leave some scars. And while like all Democrats who desperately want to beat Trump (i.e. pretty much all Democrats), I worry some about the primary getting too tough, I also take it in stride. You can’t take the politics out of politics, as my old friend Paul Tully used to say.

But 2016 and this one feel different to me in one big way. It’s less personal yet more fundamental. The nature of the divide ideologically, generationally, insider vs outsider wise is qualitatively different in these two elections. The Bernie vs Hillary fight, and this time around’s battle with Bernie and Elizabeth on one side and a rotating band of centrists on the other is about something more foundational: whether you think the country needs big, structural change, or just a little tinkering around the edges.

One of the fascinating ways this is playing out is the striking degree to which some of the Democrat-on-Democrat attacks echo the historic attacks of Republicans on the Democratic Party. The best example is the Biden/Buttigieg attacks on Warren as “elitist”. The funniest thing, as several people have noted, is that some of these attacks are happening at big money fundraisers. As Ryan Grim noted the other day:

“Joe Biden, meanwhile, spent the evening with a small group of ultra-wealthy donors, at a fundraiser hosted by a fracking developer and a health care industry executive. He used his time there to go after Warren for being elitist.”

Besides the sheer oddness of two Democrats raising a lot of money from big donors calling the populist Democrat who isn’t doing big dollar fundraising and is scaring billionaires with her wealth tax proposals an elitist, what is most disturbing is that these attacks very much echo right wing and Republican talking points about the Democratic Party for the last 50 years. Generations of Republicans have attacked Democrats for being liberal elitists, it has been one of the most consistent attack lines for Republicans against Democrats for a very long time. Always deeply ironic coming from the party of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation for big business, but irony has never slowed Republicans down at all.

Joe Biden got very upset the other day when Elizabeth said his arguments sounded like they belonged in a Republican primary, but you can’t use Republican attack lines and not get some shade sent back at you.

According to Mayor Pete and the Veep, Elizabeth is elitist is because she is inflexible, because with her it’s “my way or the highway”. This isn’t so much ironic as just puzzling. Elizabeth has never, in the campaign or in her Senate career, indicated she isn’t willing to work collegially with others on legislative ideas. She has successfully drawn in Republican co-sponsors on several of her policy initiatives; she’s been part of Schumer’s leadership team in the Senate, which is all about teamwork. She’s praised policy ideas from several of her competitors, including Buttigieg, in this race.

The issue is not Elizabeth’s inflexibility. It is, instead a stereotype centrist and establishment types want to use when talking about progressives: they want to push the idea that progressives never compromise. Which is another kind of irony altogether: throughout my almost 3 decade career in DC politics, the compromising has mostly been on the progressive side. Progressives compromised to get Family and Medical Leave passed, even when it wasn’t paid leave. Teddy Kennedy compromised to get more modest health care reforms passed after Hillary Care went down. Progressives agreed to give up on the public option to get the ACA passed. Progressives agreed to give up on breaking up the big banks in order to get Dodd-Frank passed. In every single case, it was moderate Democrats who demanded “my way or the highway” in order to get the legislation enacted.

At the heart of the matter is the disagreement over something Obama said in his speech to the Democracy Alliance the other day:

“There are a lot of persuadable voters and there are a lot of Democrats out there who just want to see things make sense. They just don’t want to see crazy stuff. They want to see things a little more fair, they want to see things a little more just.”

That to me is the perfect summary of the divide. Obama is a good man and did many good things as president, and he was obviously limited by Republican control of Congress for much of his time in office. But he never wanted to change things too much. He wanted things to be “a little more fair, a little more just”. Even in the midst of the worst economic crisis in 80 years, a crisis caused by a wildly out of control and far too powerful financial sector, he didn’t want to change things too much, or come down too hard on the forces that had destroyed the economy.

But for the progressives who see climate scientists increasingly panicked by the radically escalating crisis; who see income inequality and corporate concentration of power and wealth at their worst levels in almost a century; who see broken immigration and criminal justice systems: this not a time they want things “a little more fair, a little more just”. They want big structural change.

And what old mainstream political players like Stan Greenberg and me are seeing — contrary to the interpretation of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party — working class swing voters are more with the progressives than with the small changes moderates. Working class folks have been getting the short end of the stick in terms of the economy for about 40 years now, and they are sick of it. There’s a reason Donald Trump got elected: a whole lot of working class voters wanted big change, not small. Voters who had gone for Obama voted for Trump, or for 3rd parties, or didn’t vote, in enough numbers that Trump won those swing states. They got tired of “a little more fair, a little more just”, and wanted to blow the whole system up.

Remember as well that voters keep voting for big changes, and it wasn’t just Trump. Starting with the 2006 election, voters have voted for a change in power 6 of the last 7 election cycles, always by bigger margins that pundits predicted. Obama ran as the progressive change alternative to the establishment in 2008, and won. Trump beat heavily favored frontrunners in the primary, and Bernie came close to pulling off what would have been the most surprising upset in history in the Democratic primary. Voters want change, and establishment Democrats have been very hesitant to give it to them.
This debate at the heart of the Democratic divide is important to have, even though we are 100% united on the need to beat Trump. Because if we win this election, and don’t deliver real change, big structural change as Elizabeth likes to say, to the working class folks of all races and regions in this country- swing voters and base voters alike- who decide elections, we will have a Republican candidate next time that is just as extreme, but smarter and more effective than Trump.

Mike Lux

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Mike Lux

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