With less than a month until the first Democratic presidential primary contests, the question that needs to be asked is whether the party is going to tear itself apart over the course of these primaries, whether we’ll see a repeat—or worse—of 2016.
We can break this question down into two more specific ones. One: If Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren wins the nomination, will the mainstream and moderate wing of the party get behind him or her? And two: If a moderate Democrat secures the nomination, will the progressive wing of the party support that person?
As a practical matter, more moderate Democrats will likely be on board with a progressive nominee. After all, when is the last time you have heard moderates demanding a “purity test”?! Although there’s a possibility that some subset of centrist Democrats would not be on board if Liz Warren or especially Bernie Sanders secured the nomination, including some House Democrats in swing districts.
The real question is, will progressives embrace a more moderate Democrat?! Well the answer to that, as I’ve heard from countless progressives who called my SiriusXM radio show, is a resounding: “Abso-f***ing-lutely!” In fact, that was the exact response one progressive activist gave when I asked if she would support a moderate Democrat if he or she secured the 2020 nomination.
We saw this same approach in 2018 from even staunch progressives who put pragmatism over purity in order to win the House back, as evidenced by the mantra I heard over and over: “Vote Blue, No Matter Who.” Today, I’m hearing that exact same refrain. And the reason for that sentiment is the exact same reason as 2018: Donald Trump. On an almost daily basis Trump reminds us of the very real threat he poses to many communities with his bigotry, sexism, incompetence and corruption.
But before my fellow Democrats think all is well in the world of party unity, in reality it won’t be that simple. For starters, if history is any guide, the next few months will see the 2020 Democrats escalate the attacks against each other. We are currently watching Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden go back and forth now on policy issues and “baggage.” If those attacks veer into the personal or are viewed as unfair by supporters for any candidate, uniting the party once a nominee is determined will be that much more challenging.
Add to that, Trump will do everything he can to divide Democrats. He did that in 2016, doing his best to fan the divide between Hillary Clinton and Sanders supporters with comments like, “The Democrats have treated Bernie very badly,” and, “To all of those Bernie Sanders voters who have been left out in the cold by a rigged system of super delegates, we welcome you with open arms."
That’s why I winced when I read Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comment earlier this week where she said about Joe Biden, “Oh God… In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” I’m a big admirer of AOC, and technically, she is correct—in a parliamentary system, it’s very likely that Biden would be in the main center-left party, and AOC in perhaps the Green Party or another party on the left. So I get what she meant.
But leaders of the progressive wing of our party, which I’m a part of, have to be cognizant that their words could hurt party unity come the general election. And given Trump’s history, there’s zero doubt that Trump will use AOC’s words if Biden is the nominee to attempt to drive a wedge between more progressive Democrats in the general like he did in 2016. (By the way, the perception many hold that Sanders supporters didn’t support Clinton in 2016 is overblown per three post-election studies, which found that in reality more Sanders primary supporters voted for Clinton than Clinton supporters voted for Barack Obama in 2008.)
Also, I have to flag that there are two moderate Democrats in the field that I fear progressives may not rally around. However, Biden is not one of them. Not one progressive who has called into my show lately has voiced any hesitation to support Biden if he wins the nomination. There were concerns amongst progressives that Biden as nominee wouldn’t inspire the enthusiasm that a Sanders or Warren headed ticket would. Recent CBS polls of Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats backed this up, finding Sanders and Warren supporters far more enthusiastic about their candidate than Biden supporters.
So who are the two toughest sells to progressives? Perhaps not shockingly, Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg. These are the only two candidates in the field of more moderate Democrats who elicited actual anger from some progressives. (In my case, I share that anger toward Bloomberg given his policies as mayor of New York City—where I live—from “stop and frisk” to illegal surveillance of the Muslim community.)
With Buttigieg, some white progressives expressed true disdain, describing him as cravenly opportunistic in his perceived pivot from more progressive to moderate to find a lane in the 2020 race. And many, many black listeners have expressed deep concerns and even hostility to Buttigieg, citing everything from his failure as mayor of South Bend to diversify his city’s police force to the fact that less than 3 percent of city business was awarded to minority and women-owned businesses while he served as mayor. South Bend is 26 percent black.
Bluntly, if either Buttigieg or Bloomberg secure the nomination, we may not see the party unity needed to defeat Trump. However, either choosing a progressive star as vice president could lessen that concern.
Once Democrats decide on a nominee, uniting our party will be the top priority. As one 2016 Sanders delegate put it on my show when he recently pledged to 100-percent support Biden if he’s the nominee—and even Bloomberg if need be—it’s about being part of a Democratic movement that can change policy. With a Democratic president who may be more moderate, progressives from members of Congress to grassroots activists will still have access and a plausible chance to move that president to embrace more progressive policies. With Trump as president, there’s zero chance he will do anything but serve up red meat to his base, from policies to racist rhetoric.
There is also something else helping achieve the goal of party unity in 2020 that was lacking in 2016: Trump in the White House and the understanding that he could win. That not only keeps some of us awake at night, it makes us pragmatic in our quest to defeat him. Trump is uniting the diverse base of the Democratic Party in ways we couldn’t do on our own and in turn he’s laying the road to “Make the Democratic Party Great Again.”