democrats in disarray

The Election Should Reduce, Not Increase, Democratic Infighting

Will the donkeys fight or bray in unison? Photo: James Hager/Getty Images

During this weird twilight period in which we are all waiting for Republicans to abandon Donald Trump’s clumsy effort to contest his defeat, a hardy perennial topic for the punditocracy is that Democrats are being torn apart by internecine warfare in the wake of their disappointing 2020 election performance. Here’s the lede for a roundup of research on the topic from veteran New York Times writer Tom Edsall:

The Democratic Party is struggling with internal contradictions, as its mixed performance on Election Day makes clear.

Analysts and insiders are already talking ­— sometimes in apocalyptic terms — about how hard it will be for Joe Biden to hold together the coalition that elected him as the 46th president.

Ah yes, the “Democrats in Disarray” meme! It never grows old.

It is inevitable, of course, that in the wake of downballot disappointments and a less than overwhelming public repudiation of Donald Trump, different Democratic factions will blame each other for undermining the ticket. Right now a big percentage of the heat is coming from a small group of centrist House members, most notably Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, who has bitterly complained that the preoccupation of some unnamed Democrats with “defunding the police” and the very existence of Democratic socialism exposed pols like her from marginal districts to damaging attacks.

In a post-Election meeting of the House Democratic Caucus when Spanberger was especially outspoken, “Squad” member Rashida Tlaib of Michigan fired back: “To be real, it sounds like you are saying stop pushing for what Black folks want.” This is rich and tasty fare for connoisseurs of Democratic disarray.

But once the blame for November is distributed and litigated and 2021 arrives, there’s actually less, not more, reason for Democratic infighting going forward, precisely because the spoils of victory are meager. Yes, Democrats will hold the ultimate prize of the executive branch and Joe Biden will have plenty of Cabinet posts, ambassadorships and other goodies to distribute. There will be complaints from various corners of the party about the mix of appointees and what that supposedly says about the direction in which the new administration is taking Democrats (and particularly sharp objections at the likely token Republican appointee, possibly Meg Whitman).

But once that’s over and Democrats settle down to the work of the next two years, grounds for infighting could fade.

Had Democrats expanded their majority in the House and won control of the Senate by a comfortable margin, as many expected, there would have immediately been a huge intra-party battle over legislative goals, strategy and tactics. Right away progressives would have pushed for such institutional reforms as the abolition of the Senate filibuster and perhaps restrictions on Supreme Court jurisdiction (or more controversially, “court-packing”). More moderate Democrats would have likely resisted on every front. From a substantive point of view, battles over health care reform, climate change prevention and mitigation, defense spending, and even the composition of a COVID-19 relief and stimulus package might have broken out, alongside intense arguments over priorities and the pace of legislation. It would have tested the skills of both the new president and Democratic congressional leaders to keep the party publicly and privately at peace and pulling in the same direction.

As it stands, Democrats need to win two Senate runoffs in Georgia — a state Biden carried by an eyelash but where Democrats have not done well in general election runoffs in the past — to get to 50 senators and enable Kamala Harris to break the tie and organize the chamber. If they do that, their agenda for institutional reform and legislation will depend on keeping every Democrat on board. That essentially means every senator — including the quasi-conservative Joe Manchin, who opposes filibuster reform and anything looking even vaguely like a Green New Deal — will have a veto. This reality will dictate a very modest legislative agenda and rule out institutional reform.

If Democrats fall short in Georgia, Mitch McConnell will stay in place and it’s Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski (perhaps in tandem with Manchin) who will have the whip hand, at least on issues where McConnell is willing to allow a vote. We will very likely see a return to legislative gridlock, with Republicans happy to gum up the works as they await 2022, and a midterm election that historically has almost always strengthened the hand of the party that does not control the White House.

This dispiriting scenario would not mean a total cease-fire in Democratic ideological battles or arguments over strategy and tactics cease. But those fights would not matter a whole lot.

Another product of the 2020 elections that could reduce factional tensions involves the presidential succession. When Kamala Harris was chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate, it was well-understood that he might be a one-term president, making her the heir apparent. It may have been less well-understood that as someone who is ideologically smack in the center of her party, and representing not one but three historically under-represented constituencies, Harris will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge as president-in-waiting. To the extent that factional aspirations are typically reflected in presidential primary fights, the next one could be still-born.

The bottom line is that the course immediately ahead for the Democratic Party have have largely been predetermined by events, leaving them less to fight about. There is something to be said for limited options, when you compare the donkey’s plight to the elephant’s. At this moment the Republican Party is entirely a prisoner to the ever-devious Donald Trump’s future plans. If he chooses to make the next four years a long festival of grievance and revenge, the GOP may be stuck with him or could be torn asunder. If the 45th president doesn’t try to become the 47th, he could have a huge impact from the sidelines in choosing his successor as party nominee. And having twisted conservative ideology into a set of impulses driven by venality, racism and hostility to democratic norms, Trump has already made it difficult for Republicans to project a message that isn’t formed in his frightful image. Democrats should lick their wounds but also count their blessings.

The Election Should Actually Reduce Democratic Infighting