Running from the establishment could be dangerous for Democrats

Running from the establishment could be dangerous for Democrats
© Getty Images

Democrats’ debates showed, and primary polling quantifies, their establishment’s decline. The fall has been precipitous and appears to be accelerating. It has been half a century since the party has been so unabashedly liberal. While Democrats yearn for such a return, it is unclear if America does. 

In two nights of debating — with 10 candidates each night — only former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTop House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents Judge's ruling creates fresh hurdle for Trump's TikTok ban Harris says she hasn't 'made a plan one way or another' on meeting Supreme Court nominee MORE and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Cook Political Report shifts Colorado Senate race toward Democrat Willie Nelson playing at virtual fundraiser for Hickenlooper MORE represented Democrats’ traditional establishment. They glaringly stood apart — and likely, neither will be standing for long.

Hickenlooper should not be expected on July’s debate stage. When he goes, Biden — the frontrunner — will barely benefit, because the Coloradan barely registers. That will leave the Democratic field as a visual representation of the party’s political reality: A preponderant left against a rapidly vanishing establishment.

Before long, Biden too will likely be gone. He will either be overwhelmed by the left, as all of his opponents descend on him, or he will have to become them — adopting their positions further to the left, to grow his inadequate establishment base. Either way, the Democratic establishment vanishes.

Polling quantifies this visual of Democrats’ disappearing establishment. According to Real Clear Politics’ Democratic primary polling averages in June 2019 (just prior to the debates) Biden stood at 32 percent. At just under one-third, he was the only establishment candidate registering in the polls. Even the 14.2 percent undecided should be cold comfort for the establishment.

Looking back to Real Clear Politics’ 2015 Democratic preferences shows how far and fast has been the establishment’s fall. In June 2015, national polling averages showed the establishment Clinton at 52.8 percent and the left insurgent Sanders at 41.4 percent. Keeping in mind, there are far more Democratic candidates in the race today, the establishment Biden is 20.8 points behind the establishment Clinton of four years ago. In contrast, today’s Democratic left is 12.4 points ahead of 2015’s.

This is more than just switched positions. Today’s left is actually running ahead of Democrats’ 2015 establishment and today’s establishment is running behind the left of four years ago.

Name recognition’s positive effect on polling makes these results even worse for the establishment. Both Clinton and Biden benefited and thereby inflated the establishment’s numbers. The candidates further to the left — either Sanders in 2015 or those of today — do not. The true gap between the establishment and the left is, therefore, greater than it appears. The relatively unknown Sanders of 2015 polled ahead of Biden of today, despite two terms and vice president.

Another indication of the Democratic left’s rise is that its jump in presidential candidate polling outpaces where polling shows Democrats to be ideologically. In 2015, Gallup found 47 percent of Democrats to be liberals. Earlier this year, Gallup found 51 percent to be. The left’s cumulative candidate polling today outstrips both: The combined left’s candidates have increased more than liberals 4 percent gain in the party in four years. Their total surpasses the first-time majority recorded earlier this year. The Democratic left is not just gaining, it is accelerating rapidly.

Democrats’ few establishment candidates — and their limited support — are not just indicators of trouble, but predictors too. Biden is 76 years old and the establishment bench is barren. It is hard to identify the establishment’s next standard-bearers. However, it is not hard to see the party’s problem without them.

Democrats last went this hard left in 1972. Perhaps America has changed in the half-century since. Democrats had better hope it has.

After George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 campaign, “liberal” became a label Democrats sought to run from — not under. The party would lose four of five presidential elections, but liberals would lose even more. Even when Democrats won — 1976, 1992 and 1996 — Carter and Clinton did so as centerist Southerners and still needed significant help to win: Watergate in 1976, third-party candidate Perot in 1992 and incumbency in 1996.

That adds up to eight straight elections, with “left” left out — even Obama did not run as left as he governed. For roughly the half-century since ‘72, “liberal” has been something Democratic presidential candidates had to work hard to prove they were not, and they could not prove competitive until they did.

The difference between then and now is that then, the Democrats’ establishment bench was deep. McGovern was more the aberration than the norm. Today’s Democratic field shows things reversed: Biden, and the establishment, are the aberrations. The left looks to be Democrats’ unmistakable present and their unavoidable future. They had better pray that neither looks like their past.

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 through 2000.