Dems worry race for ideological purity will fracture field

Rank-and-file Democrats are increasingly concerned that the 2020 nominating contest is turning into a race toward ideological purity that could fracture the party before any candidate has the chance to take on President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE.

The worry was made clear on Saturday when former President Obama warned at an event in Berlin that the expectation of ideological “rigidity” among Democratic hopefuls would ultimately weaken the Democratic Party’s political capital.


“One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States ... is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, ‘Ah, I’m sorry, this is how it’s gonna be,’ ” Obama said at a town hall event with emerging European leaders.

“Then we start sometimes creating what’s called a circular firing squad, where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues.”

Obama’s remarks reflect a growing sentiment among many establishment-minded Democrats, who see many in the party’s activist wing as overly concerned with ideological purity at a time when they had hoped the party would unite around a common goal of ousting President Trump.

That push for ideological rigidity, they say, threatens to yield a fractious and bitter primary contest — and, ultimately, a second term for Trump.

“The biggest problem for Democrats in 2020 are Democrats,” one Democratic operative said. “We gotta get out of our own way.”

While the party’s presidential primary contest has so far remained civil, skirmishes are already erupting among some Democrats in the House, where progressive members have publicly bucked party leadership and called for primary challenges to Democratic incumbents deemed insufficiently liberal.

The establishment has pushed back against those calls. Last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it would no longer do business with vendors who work for candidates who challenge incumbent Democrats, a move that infuriated progressives.

The perceived push for ideological purity is precisely what worries many in the Democratic establishment.

One Democratic official, who supports former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris 2020 Dems ratchet up anti-corporate talk in bid to woo unions Resurfaced Buttigieg yearbook named him 'most likely to be president' MORE, described an emerging “Tea Party movement” in the Democratic Party, referencing the conservative movement that ousted many Republican lawmakers and reshaped swaths of the GOP.

“It’s become increasingly more vicious since ’16 and the whole Bernie-Clinton duke-out,” the official said, referring to the bitter Democratic nominating contest between Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris Wage growth shaping up as key 2020 factor for Trump Booker to supporter who wanted him to punch Trump: 'Black guys like us, we don't get away with that' MORE (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Nadler: I don't understand why Mueller didn't charge Donald Trump Jr., others in Trump Tower meeting Kellyanne Conway: Mueller didn't need to use the word 'exoneration' in report MORE in 2016.

“It’s what I hate about the Democratic Party in politics right now,” the official continued. “We’re going through our own Tea Party movement. We just haven’t named it yet.”

The Democratic Party has moved to the left on a handful of high-profile issues in recent years, and the field of primary contenders largely reflects that shift.

Virtually every candidate has vowed not to take contributions from corporate PACs, and once-fringe issues, like single-payer health care and court-packing, have become frequent talking points for 2020 hopefuls.


But activists have also been putting pressure on candidates to stake out positions on other progressive proposals, like doing away with the filibuster in the Senate. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTim Ryan doesn't back impeachment proceedings against Trump Schiff: Democrats 'may' take up impeachment proceedings Trump claims Democrats' plans to probe admin will cost them 'big time' in 2020 MORE (D-Mass.) has come out in support of that idea, while other 2020 contenders, like Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris Booker to supporter who wanted him to punch Trump: 'Black guys like us, we don't get away with that' 2020 Dems ratchet up anti-corporate talk in bid to woo unions MORE (D-N.J.), are against it.

Rank-and-file Democrats fear that such issues could become flashpoints in the presidential primaries and fuel accusations that one candidate or another isn’t liberal enough.

To be sure, the concern about so-called purity tests among Democratic establishment figures isn’t new.

In 2017, following the hotly contested primary contest between Clinton and Sanders, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE rebuffed the notion of ideological rigidity, insisting that the party would take a “big tent” approach to elections by running candidates with differing — at times competing — positions on hot-button issues, like abortion.

And more recently, some presidential hopefuls have sought to pitch themselves as centrists willing to work across the aisle, while warning other Democrats against straying too far to the left.

Biden, a moderate Democrat who has yet to enter the 2020 race but is expected to soon, defended his political brand last week, suggesting that adopting far-left positions would ultimately cede elections to Republicans.

“Show me the really left, left, left-wingers who beat a Republican,” Biden told reporters on Friday.

There is also scant evidence that the Democratic electorate as a whole is looking for ideological purity in its eventual nominee; public polling data have consistently shown voters prizing candidate electability over shared values.

In a survey released last week by consulting firm Park Street Strategies, for example, 62 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa said that nominating a presidential candidate capable of defeating Trump was more important than nominating someone who reflects their ideology and values.

Yet to many in the party’s activist wing, electability and ideology are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they argue, the candidates that articulate the boldest progressive positions are the ones with the best chance of defeating Trump in 2020.