The civil war in the Democratic Party between old-school liberals and progressive firebrands heated up last week, leaving establishment forces in full retreat. What began as an attempted gentle slap directed at a freshman member who was offending the powers that be turned into a rout, leaving progressive forces commanding the field.
On Thursday, the House passed a nonbinding anti-hate speech resolution that under ordinary circumstances would hardly be news. However, the original language condemning anti-Semitism — a direct response to persistent anti-Jewish dog-whistling by Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — faced strong resistance from progressives and African-Americans, and was broadened into a generic condemnation of hate speech that let Omar off the hook.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came off looking weak and ineffective, displaying no ability to control her raucous caucus. House Majority Whip James Clyburn had to walk back comments he made that seemed to suggest that Jews should just get over the Holocaust already. And this episode raises the question, what will the Democratic leadership do the next time one of their flashy progressives flirts with anti-Semitic language? Judging by recent history, we will soon find out.
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This was another example of the power of the energized progressives who have quickly become the public face of the Democratic Party. The old guard is mostly white, often male, and experienced in the stodgy ways of Washington. But the progressives seized the high ground by drawing a lesson from President Donald Trump that you don’t need experience to win, just fresh ideas, a lively media strategy and an uncompromising stance against any who stand in your way.
Democrats falsely unified by hating Trump
Since the 2016 election, the Democrats have mainly been unified by hatred of President Trump and impeachment fever. But this false unity has papered over significant differences of style and substance. The progressives have been steadily pushing the party to champion ideas that the old guard would approach warily, if at all.
The left wing of the party has pushed Medicare for All, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (thus all but opening the borders), imposing massive income and wealth taxes, legalizing nine-month (even post-birth) abortion, boycotting Israel, paying reparations for slavery, and the basket of deplorable ideas called the Green New Deal onto the Democratic policy front burner.
The ideologically driven progressives make for good television but bad politics. The party in general has shifted leftward in recent decades, but half the members still identify as moderate or conservative.
Party thought-leader Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York recently threatened to keep a list of moderate Democrats to be “primaried out” if they continued to break party ranks on procedural motions (something that used to be praised as bipartisanship), essentially telling moderates from swing districts that they have to sacrifice themselves on the altar of progressive purity.
This type of bullying, from a freshman member no less, could cost the Democrats their majority, but the attitude among progressives seems to be that they have no use for elected officials who will not blindly follow their agenda, so good riddance.
How will this play out in 2020 election?
The more important question is how this plays out in the 2020 presidential election. Democratic hopefuls will need to test the progressive wish list on the stump and might feel pressure to outbid each other on how far left they can go. Those apparently pursuing an “adult in the room” centrist strategy, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, will not only face opposition from the progressive base but also find the free media oxygen sucked from the room by her more colorful radical opponents.
And the white guys — like Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington state, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, former Rep. Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke of Texas and even former Vice President Joe Biden — will be forced to explain why they are standing in the way of history by using their privilege to deny the presidential nomination from going to a woman and/or member of a minority. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is the only old white dude with a realistic shot.
Given the 2020 Democratic primary structure and the number of candidates, however, we might see a brokered convention that could result in the emergence of Hillary 3.0 to unite the bickering tribes under the banner of revenge for the supposed theft of the election in 2016.
Or the progressive insurgency might be setting up a replay of 1972, when incumbent President Richard Nixon won 49 states against ultra-liberal George McGovern.
The most important swing voters are middle class, suburban, mostly white, mostly in traditional families and mostly pragmatic centrists who vote their pocketbooks. Barring a financial meltdown, they are unlikely to throw the dice on the kind of nutty economic policies the progressives are pushing. Hispanics who are enjoying record employment and already drawing closer to President Trump might not want to abandon economic advancement to go all in with the identity-politics crowd. And Jewish voters could reconsider their traditional support for a Democratic Party looking more and more like the British Labor Party, which is in the midst of its own anti-Semitism crisis.
The winner of the Democratic civil war will most likely be Donald Trump. Good job, progressives, keep it up.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past," has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democrats' civil war between progressives and moderates will bring 2020 Trump victory