The Base vs. the Persuadables

Shutdown Split Shows the Tightrope Democrats Must Walk to Win the Senate

The Democrats have two masters to serve—the true believers, and the people who keep electing the likes of Manchin and Heitkamp and Tester and McCaskill.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

I couldn’t quite place when I’d felt before the way that I did Monday morning, as though my innards were being sucked out with a vacuum cleaner. Eventually it hit me: This was a version of how I felt at the depths of the Hillary-Bernie war.

The vote in the Senate on Monday afternoon to end the government shutdown and the reaction to it revealed the same 2016 fault lines. Twenty-three Democrats voted for the motion (the Hillary position, broadly speaking; responsible or sellout depending on your point of view), and 16 against (the Bernie position; principled or intransigent). No sooner did the clerk bang down the gavel than my inbox started filling up with press releases like the one from the group CREDO calling Chuck Schumer “the worst negotiator in Washington—even worse than Trump.”

I stashed my crystal ball in the attic after November 2016, so I don’t know, maybe time will prove CREDO right. It’s certainly a risk, taking Mitch McConnell’s word for things. Senators keep trying to spin the time machine back 40 or 50 years, to a time when it all worked. I’ll eschew the usual Peanuts metaphor, that Senate Democrats are Charlie Brown believing that this is finally the time that Lucy will finally let him kick the football, for a different one: Maybe they’re Linus sitting in the pumpkin patch, waiting for the ghosts of those Great Pumpkins Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen to appear and guide their Republican colleagues toward the kind of compromise and reason that often prevailed when those men led the Senate.

On the other hand, it may be that Schumer, who is in fact not the worst negotiator in Washington, played ball for a reason, or reasons. One reason might actually be substantive, which is the inclusion of six years of the children’s health program. There are 9 million kids on CHIP, and 800,000 DREAMers. The latter shouldn’t be abandoned, obviously, but getting six years of CHIP out of the Republicans isn’t nothing.

And the political reason almost certainly has to do with the fact that Democrats have 10 senators up for re-election this fall in states Trump won. We know about the national polls showing 80 and 90 percent support for the Democratic position on the DREAMers, and that’s great. But we don’t know the numbers in Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia. And all 10 of those senators voted for the motion Monday—not just people you’d expect like Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, but more liberal senators too, like Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

They were joined by Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, whose state Trump almost won. She was the only one of the Democrats commonly named on the 2020 lists to vote for the motion. Interesting. She’s also the only 2020 lister who didn’t co-sponsor Sanders’ Medicare for All bill. Looks like she’s just worrying about getting re-elected first.

The splits show the tightrope the Democratic Party has to walk that the Republicans just don’t. Republicans don’t have 10 senators from states Clinton won. They have one, Dean Heller of Nevada. He looks like toast in a general election, but in fact, he looks today like he might not even make it to the general. RCP has far-right primary challenger Danny Tarkanian about 7 points ahead of him (the GOP primary is in June). So, as usual with the GOP, the real action is in the primary. If Tarkanian can win it, the Club for Growth and all the rest of them will throw millions in toward turning the seat Trumpy.

That just doesn’t happen on the Democratic side. The Democrats have two masters to serve—the base, and the people who keep electing the likes of Manchin and Heitkamp and Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill. I’ve written it a hundred times, and I’ll write it a hundred more times, a thousand: Republicans can get congressional majorities solely by revving up their base, and Democrats cannot.

Democrats, if they want majorities, need the base plus—plus the people in West Virginia and North Dakota and Montana who are willing to return Manchin and Heitkamp and Tester to office. You can say let them go, but you’d be an idiot to say that. They’ve been solid votes when it counted (Obamacare), only casting pro-Trump votes when their vote didn’t matter and the final result was a foregone conclusion.

If the Democrats can retake the Senate—not impossible—that would essentially end Trump’s ability to do anything. It would be a much bigger deal than winning the House, if only because of the Senate’s role in judicial nominations.

But if they are to retake it, they’re going to have to win seats in Nevada, Arizona, and maybe Texas (where Ted Cruz might, in theory, be vulnerable to an attractive Democratic challenger), as well as holding those 10 Democratic seats in states that Trump won. That’s not winning in Vermont or Massachusetts.

But there’s very little discussion or realization of all this. And this is why I felt that vacuum cleaner inside my stomach yesterday. The next few weeks have the potential for Democrats of being a re-enactment of Hillary vs. Bernie. If it is, the Republicans will surely win. Trump will surely win.

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In the long run, the Republicans are walking the plank of demographic oblivion. But politics happen in the short run. And in the short run, the Democrats are walking a tightrope of the base vs. the persuadables. Everyone needs to remember how narrow that tightrope is.