Can Democrats survive an assault from the left?

Can Democrats survive an assault from the left?
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All hell is about to break loose in the Democratic Party. It will come from the left. And when it does, the Democratic establishment will be even more powerless than the Republican establishment was against Donald Trump.

For over a year, Democrats have enjoyed their illusion of unity. Its biggest cause has been the Trump presidency. So virulent has been the Democratic establishment’s and the left’s opposition that the two have mistakenly seemed one.  

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The clearest example of this illusory alliance has been the recent House special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district. There the Democratic establishment was able to recruit a perfect candidate for a district Trump won by 20 percentage points: A conservative.   

 

This species, all but exterminated by the left in Washington, was in Pennsylvania happily hailed by liberals for one simple reason: They hate Trump more. For liberals, the taste of victory was sweeter than the bitterness of conservatism.  

Less than two years ago, the Democratic establishment and the left were not nearly so friendly. The establishment was engaged in a desperate struggle to retain control of a party liberals felt Obama had left to them. Despite being the establishment champion and receiving all their backing — fair and foul — Clinton struggled against Sanders, the left’s challenger. 

Against all the odds — and ends — the establishment set before him, Sanders lasted the entire campaign. He received over 43 percent of votes cast (versus Clinton’s 55.6 percent) and won 34.6 percent (versus Clinton’s 41.4 percent) of total delegates. Without the establishment’s unelected super delegates, the nomination outcome would have gone to the convention floor. 

That the Democratic establishment barely survived two years ago should come as no surprise. Since LBJ’s clear inability to win re-nomination in 1968, the Democratic establishment has been on the ropes. Following that, every establishment nominee has lost the general election and the three Democrats (Carter, Clinton, and Obama) to win the presidency have all been “outsiders.” 

While the Democratic establishment withered, the left’s influence in the party grew. Liberals’ ascendancy was both cause and effect of the establishment’s decline. With Obama’s presidency — the most liberal in American history — the left rose to their greatest height. 

The left resisted Clinton’s coronation, just as they would have any establishment representative’s. Likewise, Clinton’s defeat was more than her own. It was the defeat of the establishment who thrust her upon the left.

While Democrats lost in 2016, the left feel they did not. Fighting since the nomination, they have never stopped. They are obviously the Trump administration’s most energized opposition. Internally, but less conspicuously, they remain the Democratic establishment’s too. 

The loggerhead of establishment and left in 2016 will only worsen in 2020.

The Democratic establishment is in their weakest position since LBJ. Already faltering, their nominee’s 2016 defeat discredited them even more — not just externally, but internally too.  

Additionally, they have no obvious candidate to take up their banner. The refrain of “Democrats’ weak bench” is leveled specifically at the establishment. Despite her faults, at least Clinton served as their rallying point.  Now they lack even that. 

The establishment’s five-decade decline, the left’s mounting ascendancy, and the lack of a party unifier represents respectively the Democratic party’s past, present, and future.

While the establishment’s predicament can be papered over by the seemingly unified opposition to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE, this is not a solution. In 2020, the Democrats cannot nominate this faceless feeling. They will have to nominate a definitive candidate, and the left will insist, even more strongly, that it be theirs.  

The Democratic Party therefore risks having a nominee no less alienating to their establishment than Trump was to Republicans. This risk comes with an even greater caveat: the Democratic base is bigger than the Republican base. In 2016, Democrats were 36 percent of voters (Republicans, 33 percent) and liberals 26 percent (conservatives were 35 percent).

If Democrats nominate an anti-establishment candidate of the left, they risk slicing off a greater number of establishment Democrats, than Trump did Republicans. On the other side, their reward could be picking up a smaller number of voters from the left, than Trump did from conservatives.  And neither scenario takes into account what such a candidate could do for Trump: Driving more traditional Democrats to him, and unifying conservatives around him to a greater extent than he could himself.   

In 2016, Democrats, at their establishment’s insistence, may have nominated the only candidate who could not have won. In 2020, Democrats, at the left’s insistence, may be preparing to only consider nominating candidates who cannot.  

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.