From the standpoint of its activist base, the Democratic Party is a hidebound claque of traditionalists who are consistently outmaneuvered by a more disciplined and ruthless opposition. From the standpoint of its elected officials, their party is being hijacked by ideological fanatics sent on a political suicide mission.
Recent events suggest the depressing conclusion that both indictments are essentially true.
For evidence of the former, Politico reports on the state of Democratic senatorial thinking on the subject of the judiciary. The august upper chamber has seen Mitch McConnell first build an extraordinary blockade of judicial appointments during the Obama administration that left historically large vacancies, and then change the rules in order to fill those vacancies.
Politico’s headline frames the Democrats’ dilemma as whether or not to pursue “vengeance” if and when they regain power. And progressive activists have floated some radical and unlikely retaliatory measures, like packing the Supreme Court. But Senate Democrats aren’t contemplating anything like that. They’re debating whether they should unilaterally impair their own side.
After McConnell blockaded all judicial nominations in Obama’s second term, Democrats changed the rule to allow confirmations of judicial nominations below the Supreme Court with a majority. Republicans would have done the same — and in fact did so later on, when they eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court picks, too. Now Democrats are actually debating whether they should reinstitute the judicial filibuster if they win a majority. “I wish we could also get back to 60 votes,” Alabama’s Democratic senator Doug Jones suggests. “We need to aim higher. We need to get back to that.”
While it’s nearly impossible to imagine Democrats actually following this advice, it’s worth noting just how irrationally self-defeating this idea is. Jones is proposing that Democrats would gain a majority of the Senate but allow Republicans to block all their judicial nominations again.
A related plan for unilateral surrender that has gained some senatorial enthusiasm would be to restore the old “blue slip” rule. That rule gave Senators a veto over judicial nominations from their own state — a “blue slip” they would have to sign in order to allow a nominee. Democrats let Republicans use this power to block numerous appointees under the Obama administration, but when Republicans gained the majority, McConnell did away with it.
Incredibly, Democrats are discussing whether they should restore the blue slips if they gain a majority. “It ensures that judicial nominees respect the character and views of the areas where they serve and that the local bar has a say or impact because they know the nominees better than anyone else,” notes Senator Richard Blumenthal.
Of course, the majority can change either rule at any time. So if Democrats allow a hypothetical Republican minority to veto judicial nominations, either through a filibuster or a blue slip, Republicans can and will simply change the rule back when they have power again. For all the tut-tutting about “vengeance,” what they’re discussing is not whether to steal back their lunch money from McConnell but whether they should let him borrow their wallets again.
While this delusional conversation is proceeding in Washington, the energies of the progressive base have been focused on forcing presidential candidates to endorse measures that are deeply unpopular, stand no chance of enactment, or both. And here, unlike in the chamber that will occupy the veto point of the next Democratic presidency’s agenda, the left has made significant headway.
A new poll by NPR tests most of the ideas Democrats have debated so far. The party has a wide array of proposals that enjoy public support — a Medicare option for everybody, a $15 minimum wage, a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally, a wealth tax, and other things. But several of the issues Democrats are running on poll badly. In particular, decriminalizing immigration laws, giving health-care subsidies to undocumented immigrants, and replacing private insurance with Medicare are ideas that sound bad to most Americans.
Progressives have waved away such objections by insisting people who have private insurance don’t like it and would be glad to be moved onto a public plan. “I was at a town hall and I said, ‘Who here loves their Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance?’ And not a single person raised their hand,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggests. “People like their health care, they like their doctor, but I’d be interested in what the public polling on Aetna would look like.”
Well, we do have polling on this. NPR’s data shows that letting people “choose between a national health insurance program or their own private health insurance” is a 70 percent issue, while a Medicare expansion “that replaces private health insurance” is a 41 percent issue. And that is without accounting either for the large tax increases that would be needed to finance it or the effect of a massive countermobilization by insurers and the entire medical industry. These risks are all the more difficult to fathom given the much safer alternative available to candidates: a Medicare expansion plan that could be financed exclusively by taxing the rich and which would leave employer insurance in place.
Despite these grim numbers, activists have pressured leading Democratic candidates to put themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. Just 27 percent of the public supports decriminalization of the border, and 33 percent favors the extension of health-insurance benefits to undocumented immigrants, yet during the second Democratic debate, the latter position was endorsed by every candidate onstage.
Centrism is not a political panacea, nor is it a myth. Its value matters in some ways, and not at all in others. Popular opinion is sensitive to high-profile public issues that can easily be reduced to understandable slogans on the news — “take away your insurance,” say. It is not sensitive to obscure Senate traditions — “Senator Jones refused to vote to restore the judicial filibuster” does not sound like a devastating attack.
Democratic candidates know how to read polls. They would not be taking these positions if not for the pressure to do so from activists. And yet the activists have not figured out how to bring that pressure to bear on the points in the system where it will be needed to get anything accomplished.
For the moment, the Democratic Party is clinging to centrism in the places where it has no value, and throwing it aside in the areas where doing so comes at great cost.