Racked by schism, Democrats yearn for Obama

Racked by schism, Democrats yearn for Obama
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Moderate progressive Democrats are mounting a sustained counter to the party's lurch to the left; it should be evident in this week's presidential debates.

Privately, these forces, which include some renowned liberals like House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi11 Essential reads you missed this week Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment Is there internet life after thirty? MORE (D-Calif.), would like an assist from the only Democrat who might make a difference: former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNew data challenges Trump's economic narrative Trump preps conspiracy theory to explain faltering economy The ideological divide on vaping has a clear winner: Smokers MORE.

They're hoping he'll directly call on Democrats to retain and expand his legacy domestic achievement, the Affordable Health Care Act, rather than scrap it for a politically perilous single-payer plan that eliminates almost all private health insurance.


No one is confident the 44th president, the most popular politician in America, will rise to that occasion as the debate heats up in ensuing weeks. Several months ago, in a Berlin speech, in a veiled shot at the Democrats' left wing, he warned against a political "rigidity' that insists on ideological "purity." Generally, however, for the past two and half years, he has kept a very low profile — to the consternation of many Democrats.

Several of the leading Democratic presidential candidates and a vocal contingent in Congress are forcefully pushing extremely liberal positions on issues like immigration, free college tuition and slavery reparations. Most worrisome, and hardest to walk back, is embracing a totally government-run health care plan, advocated by Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump preps conspiracy theory to explain faltering economy Sanders doubles down on 'Medicare For All' defense: 'We have not changed one word' Sanders, Warren back major shift to fight drug overdoses MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump preps conspiracy theory to explain faltering economy Sanders, Warren back major shift to fight drug overdoses Rendell: Biden 'baked in' as Democratic nominee MORE (D-Mass.) and, sometimes, Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSanders doubles down on 'Medicare For All' defense: 'We have not changed one word' Obama reveals his summer playlist Democratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows MORE (D-Calif.).

Some in the Sanders camp have misleadingly claimed this is a natural extension of Obamacare, a view challenged by that administration's vice president and 2020 candidate, Joe BidenJoe BidenScaramucci attends charity event featuring Biden in the Hamptons Klobuchar knocks Trump: 'This negotiating by tweet hasn't been working' Rendell: Biden 'baked in' as Democratic nominee MORE.

Polls — and most Democratic House members from swing districts — see single-payer as a general election disaster. It would give Republicans, who've been devastated by the issue of health care for the past two years, a chance to go on the offense.

At this week's debates this will be joined directly. The first evening Warren and Sanders are on the same stage with a chance to differentiate their views and past records. Also look for others, like South Bend Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSunday shows preview: Trump ratchets up trade war with China Democratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates MORE or Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockDemocratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows The Hill's 12:30 Report: Stocks sink as Trump fights with Fed, China The Hill's Morning Report: How will Trump be received at G-7? MORE, absent in the initial debate, to take on some of the Sanders-Warren left wing positions.


The second evening most of the chatter has been about Biden, the front-runner, and Harris facing off again. The former Vice President will take his share of hits on issues like his advocacy of a President Clinton-sponsored 1994 crime bill that liberals now criticize. But look for others like Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett to raise questions about Harris' waffling on issues like eliminating private health insurance coverage.

These schisms are playing out in Congress too, especially the House where that small contingent of freshmen — led by New York's Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTlaib says Trump 'scared' of 'Squad' The Memo: Dangers loom for Trump on immigration Students retreating from politics as campuses become progressive playgrounds MORE and self-named “The Squad” — are consistently challenging senior Democrats, particularly Speaker Pelosi, to be more aggressively left wing.

But a growing legislative and political opposition is putting “The Squad” on the defensive. Former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a liberal icon when he was in Congress, assailed “The Squad,” all of whom represent overwhelmingly Democratic districts, as out of touch with political reality. "They make the fundamental mistake," Frank said in a New Yorker interview, "of thinking the general public is much more in agreement with them than it is, and forget about or just reject the notion of trying to figure out how to get things done."

Of the more than two dozen freshman Democrats elected in competitive, Republican-held districts last fall, the vast majority reject a left-wing agenda and have ended up much closer to Pelosi (initially a target for some of them) than to “The Squad.” Most ran as progressives who wanted to build on the Affordable Health Care act and not replace it.

There was a record turnout last November for a midterm election, undercutting the claims of the Sanders faction that a left-wing agenda is necessary to energize Democratic voters.

One controversy that may be deflated in Congress and on the presidential trail is the impeachment of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE. Although it has been clear there's no chance of a successful impeachment, last week's House hearings with former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE reinforced the futility of that course.

Yet most of the presidential aspirants are likely to say — like Speaker Pelosi — that while Trump committed indictable offenses, the focus now should be defeating him next year.

Some may vow to appoint an attorney general who will vigorously prosecute any crimes Trump may have committed. In his testimony Mueller, while noting that Justice Department regulations preclude indicting a sitting president, said a president can be indicted after leaving office.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.