The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016

Rep. Edwards speaking to defend and expand Social Security

They may have a strong presidential candidate, but at every other level, the party’s politicians and activists are fighting to survive — and fighting with one another.

New York Times Magazine

MAY 12, 2015 – Maryland might seem a peculiar venue for a blood feud over the future of the Democratic Party. It is the second-bluest state in the United States, after Massachusetts, according to Gallup; its registered Democrats, more than 30 percent of whom are black, outnumber registered Republicans two to one. Maryland is home to an immense federal work force and is one of the states most economically dependent on the federal government. Its gun-control laws are among the strictest in the nation. In 2012, Maryland and Maine became the first states to ratify same-sex marriage by popular vote. Barack Obama’s statewide margin of victory was roughly 26 points in 2008 and 2012, the fifth highest in the United States. The last time the G.O.P. won control of the Maryland State Legislature was in 1897. So reliable is its party affiliation that, as a Democratic senator’s chief of staff puts it, “If Maryland ever becomes a jeopardy state, then the whole thing is gone.”
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This past March, when Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in United States Senate history, unexpectedly announced that she would not be seeking a sixth term in 2016, national progressive groups quickly threw their weight behind their dream candidate: Donna Edwards. A pugnacious former community organizer, Edwards is a four-term African-American congresswoman from Prince George’s County, one of the most affluent majority-black counties in the United States. But she wasn’t the favorite of establishment Democrats.

For them, the obvious choice to replace Mikulski was the seven-term congressman Chris Van Hollen, who is considered a progressive like Edwards, but has a reputation for coolheaded practicality and for working well with Republicans. Of the bills sponsored by Van Hollen in the previous session of Congress, 37 percent included at least one Republican co-sponsor. For Edwards, the corresponding figure was 0 percent. Where she is viewed as a warrior for liberal causes, he is seen as a conciliator, one whose let’s-sit-down-and-talk-this-over geniality led to his tenure as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2007 to 2011 and, thereafter, to his designation as the House Democrats’ point man on bipartisan budget discussions. As their lead negotiator, Van Hollen has immersed himself in the sort of legislative sausage-making that typically entails compromise, like his expressed willingness, in 2012, to consider restructuring Social Security as part of an overall deficit-reduction agreement. To progressives, this was nothing less than apostasy.

Though the Senate Democratic primary was a year away, the national groups supporting Edwards knew that Van Hollen would be viewed as the prohibitive front-runner if they didn’t define the stakes of the contest immediately. Three of these groups — the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and Blue America — sent out a blizzard of fund-raising solicitations, petitions and emails to members and to the media, one of which hailed Edwards as “a true Elizabeth Warren Democrat,” referring to the U.S. senator from Massachusetts whose confrontational stances on economic issues have galvanized the left. Van Hollen received an altogether different reception. Within hours after he made his candidacy official on March 4, three other voices from the liberal wing of the party — MoveOn, Credo Action and Daily Kos, the website run by the activist Markos Moulitsas — openly questioned his progressive bona fides and implied that he was one of a breed of “corporate ‘New Democrats.’?” Moulitsas’s website declared that Van Hollen’s flexibility on Social Security amounted to “a major red flag,” making him “a candidate that may bargain away retirement security.” Edwards, meanwhile, entered the race pointedly pledging never to tamper with Social Security, “no ifs, ands, buts or willing-to-considers.”

Whichever Democratic candidate wins the primary next spring, he or she will be heavily favored to become the state’s next U.S. senator. Because of this, the Maryland contest is unlikely to hinge on which candidate can appeal to the broadest spectrum of voters on Election Day. Rather, it will be a fight over what a true Democrat should, and should not, be.  (Continued)

This identity struggle was born out of devastating losses at the polls last November, but it is rooted in intraparty disagreements that have been decades in the making. And it is by no means limited to Maryland. In Illinois, Florida, California and elsewhere, progressive groups have asserted their energies to promote what they hope will be populist warriors in the Elizabeth Warren mold while weeding out those judged to be ideologically tepid. The recently announced presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist senator from Vermont, will no doubt increase the party’s gravitational pull leftward. Still, given Van Hollen’s history as a highly effective liberal legislator, the effort to push him aside in favor of Edwards is a striking development for a party that has largely kept its internal skirmishes under wraps. As Neil Sroka, the communications strategist for the liberal group Democracy for America, puts it, “We view primaries like this one as a fight over the future of the Democratic Party.”

For all the much-discussed ailments of the Republican Party — its failure to win the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections; the corrosive bickering between its mainstream and its Tea Party stalwarts; and the plummeting number of Americans who identify themselves as Republicans — the inescapable reality is that the Democrats have fallen into a ditch arguably as deep and dismal as the one Republicans have dug for themselves. “It isn’t that the Democratic Party is struggling,” says Jonathan Cowan, the president of the centrist policy center Third Way. “It’s that at the subpresidential level, it’s in a free fall.” The Democrats lost their majority in the Senate last November; to regain it, they will need to pick up five additional seats (or four if there’s a Democratic vice president who can cast the tiebreaking vote), and nonpartisan analysts do not rate their chances as good. The party’s situation in the House is far more dire. Only 188 of the lower chamber’s 435 seats are held by Democrats. Owing in part to the aggressiveness of Republican-controlled State Legislatures that redrew numerous congressional districts following the 2010 census, few believe that the Democratic Party is likely to retake power until after the next census in 2020, and even then, the respected political analyst Charles Cook rates the chances of the Democrats’ winning the House majority by 2022 as a long shot at best.

Things get even worse for the Democrats further down the political totem pole. Only 18 of the country’s 50 governors are Democrats. The party controls both houses in only 11 State Legislatures. Not since the Hoover Administration has the Democratic Party’s overall power been so low. A rousing victory by Hillary Rodham Clinton might boost other Democratic aspirants in 2016; then again, in 2012 Obama won 62 percent of Electoral College votes yet carried 48 percent of Congressional districts and a mere 22 percent of the nation’s 3,114 counties. Through a billion dollars of campaign wizardry, the president did not lift up but only managed to escape a party brand that has come to be viewed in much of America with abiding disfavor.

For a giddy moment seven years ago, Democrats dared to believe that Barack Obama’s election would significantly reconfigure partisan alliances. Instead, his presidency has only calcified them. “When Obama swept the 2008 primary and general elections, Democrats’ image suddenly came to be defined by a city-dwelling law-school professor whose life experiences had been far different from those of most working-class whites,” said David Wasserman, a congressional analyst for The Cook Political Report. “It was the culminating moment of a half-century of realignment. Democrats had already ceded Southern whites, but in the last few years they have lost droves of Midwestern, small-town and working-class whites who feel like they have little in common with the party anymore.”

As to how Democrats should be responding to their poor showing below the executive branch, there are two competing schools of thought, each of which began to emerge in the middle of the last decade, when the Republicans controlled all branches of government and Karl Rove, the G.O.P. strategist, was crowing about a party majority that would endure for many decades to come. Moderates believe the only remedy is for Democrats to refashion themselves as pragmatists who care more about achieving results than ideological purity. When I asked Cowan about what he hoped for in a Hillary Clinton presidency, he said: “Senator Clinton has been in politics long enough to realize you’re governing in a divided country. You use the mandate you have to get stuff done.”

Progressives, on the other hand, believe that the Democrats lost their way by obsessing over what President Bill Clinton once termed “the vital center.” That fixation, they say, has rendered the party brand incomprehensible and raised the question as to what exactly Democrats stand for. To them, it is the sharp-tongued populist rhetoric of Warren, whose signature line is that “the game is rigged” against working-class Americans, that represents the party’s only viable future. Moulitsas of Daily Kos says: “The Democrats’ branding problem isn’t that people don’t agree with the Democratic agenda. It’s that voters don’t trust them to actually carry it out. That, in huge part, is why Democratic-base turnout is so low across the board and especially so in midterms. So that’s where the Warrens and Edwardses of the party come in: Democrats who aren’t just saying the right thing and believing the right thing but doing the right thing and forcefully fighting for it.”

The problem is that neither wing can muster an entirely airtight case that theirs is the road map to electoral success. Sroka, of Democracy for America, says that last November’s election “was a good night for progressives,” pointing to the successful re-election campaigns waged by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who each employed anti-Wall Street rhetoric. But in purple states, House Democrats like Alan Grayson of Florida, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Tom Perriello of Virginia all ran on Obama’s progressive achievements in 2010 and lost, as did Shea-Porter again in 2014.

Moderate Democrats cite the Senate victories of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Joe Donnelly in Indiana in 2012 as models for how Democrats can expand the map in their favor by proffering candidates who are not to the left of their electorate. On the other hand, Mark Warner, the Virginia senator and popular centrist, was nearly defeated in 2014 by failing to motivate the Democratic base. And the moderate Senate Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana did all they could to distance themselves from Obama’s Affordable Care Act and were still routed. The election results are a jumble of counterindicators, from which anything and nothing can be concluded, allowing each side to blame the other after a loss.

The long-simmering family quarrel has now spilled out into the open in Maryland, where, Sroka says, “going forward the question is: ‘Will the party embrace that sort of populist progressive image? Or is it going to follow the Wall Street wing that’s led the party astray for the past 15 years?’?” Cowan, unsurprisingly, sees the Maryland contest differently: not as the voiceless versus the elite, but rather as reasonable folks versus extremists. Or as he says, “What is at stake in the Maryland Senate primary is literally nothing less than whether we will Tea Party the Democratic Party.”

It has never been Donna Edwards’s impulse to accommodate others. “You don’t get things by just rolling over,” she said one morning as we sat in a hotel lobby less than a mile away from her residence at Maryland’s National Harbor. “You get a deal by fighting hard.”

Edwards has the lithe, intense build of a long-distance runner. Her mother grew up in the segregated South among farmers who also worked in the coal mines whenever the crops failed. Her father joined the Air Force just after President Truman integrated the military and eventually rose to master sergeant. After she earned a law degree and spent two decades working for various liberal advocacy groups, she ran in 2006 for the Maryland congressional seat occupied by an African-American centrist, Albert Wynn. That she nearly defeated Wynn with very little financial support drew the admiration of national progressive groups, which invested heavily in a 2008 rematch. When a robo call released by the Wynn campaign condemned Edwards for fiscal irresponsibility, citing the fact that tax liens had been placed on her Maryland house, she deftly reframed this bit of personal history as the struggle of a single mother in an economy rigged to benefit “corporate Democrats” like Wynn. Edwards clobbered him by 22 points, prompting MoveOn to send out an exultant fund-raising email with the subject heading, “Donna Edwards Beats Al Wynn: Who’s Next?” Adam Green, a founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me that this 2008 race, largely undiscussed by the national media at the time, was in fact seminal. “Donna Edwards,” he said, “was the original victorious primary winner of the modern-day progressive era.”

Like her ideological opposite, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another lawyer who ascended to office by defeating a well-funded, heavily favored politician, Edwards has made few friends since arriving in Washington. Even some of her natural allies, including a few fellow Maryland Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, describe her privately as teamwork-averse and as opportunist. Progressives, of course, love that Edwards is not a backslapping insider. She has vigorously advocated for many of their pet causes — minimum-wage increases, college-tuition debt relief, overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United verdict so as to regulate corporate expenditures on political activity — that they maintain are popular with the public despite having failed to pass in Congress.

They also see her as a model progressive in another sense: Edwards is not a white male. As she pointedly informed me: “The base of the Democratic Party is African-American women. They’re the party’s most reliable voters.” Her statement is both true and not true. Black women in 2012 had the highest turnout rate, 70 percent, of any voting group in America, and 96 percent of them voted for Obama. But it has been estimated that nearly a third of women of color who voted in 2012 stayed home in 2014, with the highest drop off occurring among black women. No one, including Edwards and the groups backing her, has suggested that the Democratic Party can stake its future on minority turnout and abandon working-class white voters in the suburbs altogether. Still, the corollary to Edwards’s point is that Democrats might do better among their most faithful constituents nationwide if they offered more relatable candidates, including more black Elizabeth Warrens.

This theory saw its limits last November in Maryland. The state’s Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, an African-American war hero and champion of progressive causes like expanded health care and preschool education, continually bashed his Republican opponent as pro-gun and anti-abortion. The Republican, Larry Hogan, said that Brown would be a tax-happy liberal just like the previous Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley. In one of the election cycle’s most stunning defeats, Brown ended up losing by nearly five points. Most explanations for what went wrong have focused on Brown’s lackluster campaign. But the fact remains that even in one of America’s bluest states, a progressive candidate of considerable accomplishment, even one who looks like his constituents, is by no means assured of victory.

One reason for this may be that liberal African-Americans still need convincing that a progressive agenda benefits their pocketbook. “What you have to consider about Maryland,” says Albert Wynn, the man Donna Edwards defeated in 2008, “is that two out of the last four governors have been Republican. Maryland may be blue, but it’s not California. It’s very progressive on social issues, but there’s also uneasiness over the foreclosure situation, which has been devastating to the African-American community in particular. And there’s real concern over job creation. Raising the minimum wage is not an economic message. It’s an element of an economic message. No one’s saying, ‘I want my kids to have a minimum wage job.’ They want Maryland to attract businesses that are now going to other states. I think people are oversimplifying Maryland politics.”

By “people,” the former congressman was referring to the outside progressive groups that helped unseat him and were now setting their sights on Chris Van Hollen by insinuating that he was a “Wall Street Democrat.” When I asked Van Hollen what he thought of the term, his placid expression curdled somewhat. “Look, I’m not sure what the definition of that is,” he said, his boyish face projecting the earnestness of a student-body president. “All I know is what I believe.” Of the outside groups that saw him as inferior to Edwards, he said dismissively, “I’ve got the support of people who’ve led the fight for progressive change in Maryland.”

Numerous local Democratic officials and progressive groups have in fact voiced their support for Van Hollen, who was a key figure in the passage of anti-tobacco and gun-control legislation as a state senator during the 1990s and who later led House Democratic efforts to reform campaign-finance laws in the wake of the Citizens United verdict. Cowan, of Third Way, says: “Van Hollen is basically a thoughtful, pragmatic liberal. He’s neither firmly in the centrist camp nor in the far-left camp. And the bizarreness of the litmus test they’re now applying to him is that it’s not really about whether he’s a progressive at heart.”

The outside groups aligned against him admit that Van Hollen is not a true foe. They do not see him as an egregious pragmatist like the Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, whom progressives fought in vain to unseat in this spring’s Democratic runoff. Nor do they view him as akin to Patrick Murphy, a Florida congressman and Senate candidate whom the groups are currently blasting as “Republican Lite” while promoting his opponent, Alan Grayson, a congressman and progressive bulldog who has likened the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan. But the mild-mannered Van Hollen will never inspire a chorus of hell-yeahs in the manner of the pugilistic Grayson. For that matter, as a diplomat’s son born in Pakistan and educated at Harvard, he lacks the populist connective tissue that Donna Edwards has. Shortly after Freddie Gray died after being injured while in police custody in Baltimore, Edwards told me: “I reacted to what happened from my perspective raising a young black son in an environment that’s complicated. And one of the voices that’s so important but that’s been missing are black moms who are raising their children and worrying about what’s happened to our communities.”

Van Hollen nonetheless enters the race as the front-runner, owing to his legislative accomplishments and to his extensive fund-raising connections as the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, political-science professor, says: “Any financial advantage by him will probably be evened out by the sweat equity of progressive grass-roots volunteers. So resourcewise, this is a draw. The differentiator will be policy stuff. Her people are probably going to be poring over every committee vote and every statement to see where he was siding with Wall Street. The Van Hollen people will be doing the same thing. And sure, race is always a factor” — a factor, Schaller said, that would help Edwards in black-dominated counties but hurt her in the rural stretches of western Maryland and along the Chesapeake Bay, with emerging neighborhoods of Asian and Latino voters potentially proving decisive.

As the national progressive groups backing Edwards funnel funds and campaign infrastructure into Maryland, their efforts will also serve as the opening volley in a more far-reaching strategy, which is to stock Congress and the White House with true-blue warriors rather than bland accommodationists. The outcome, as they imagine it, would be a Democratic front line committed to income equality, an expanded social safety net and climate change doing battle with a G.O.P. that will continue to fight against tax increases, entitlement programs and environmental regulation. “It is the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that has suffused it with new energy and purpose,” Moulitsas said. “Our job is to finish getting rid of the dinosaurs so that we as a party can move forward with a cohesive, positive and popular message.” Moulitsas rattled off a list of liberals who, in his view, were already reshaping the Senate: Warren, Merkley, Franken, Sanders, Tammy Baldwin and Sherrod Brown. Donna Edwards, he said, “would be a huge addition.”

It’s an open question how an American public already disgusted with government dysfunction would react to a Democratic Party filled with far-left alley-fighters to stalemate the Tea Party on the other side of the aisle. But as has been the case with Republicans, in which the presidential candidate Ted Cruz and his fellow hard-liners in Congress have effectively defined the terms of the party’s policy-making, agitators on the left have already succeeded in tugging the party further away from the center. That is true on the presidential level, where Hillary Clinton has very recently taken pains to embrace Elizabeth Warren as one who “never hesitates to hold powerful people’s feet to the fire,” while casting her own candidacy as a populist quest to “reshuffle the cards” of a deck stacked in favor of the rich and powerful. And it is true in Maryland, where Van Hollen, after entering the race and encountering criticism from the progressive groups, has now vowed that he will never cut Social Security benefits and in fact supports expanding them, just as Edwards does.

“I’m always quoting the Bible to my caucus,” Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, told me one afternoon in the House minority leader’s conference room. “And in it, Christ said, ‘Love thy neighbor.’ Of course, that’s the easy part. The neighbor’s somewhere over there. Now,” she said, pivoting from the Republican neighbors across the aisle to her squabbling fellow Democrats, “?‘Love one another?’ That’s the day-to-day challenge we have.”

Pelosi has possibly been in a better position to comprehend her party’s divisions than any other Democrat in America. For the past 12 years, she has presided over — and, many would say, iron-fistedly held together — a Democratic caucus that, at its peak membership of 257 in 2009, was in a constant state of intramural rancor. Three election cycles later, most of its so-called Blue Dog moderates have been drubbed out of office by Tea Party Republicans. Her caucus of House Democrats, now reduced to 188 members, is dominated by urban liberals, with fewer moderates left to argue with. Pelosi’s challenge these days appears to be persuading her more talented members to stick around, enduring the dreary torpor of entrenched minority status in a legislative chamber that has become a marvel of do-nothingness. Pelosi, a native of Baltimore, has watched with a certain sorrow as two of her protégés, Van Hollen and Edwards — and potentially a third member of her caucus, Elijah Cummings, who is also a Baltimore native — have willingly forfeited their House seats and the various leadership posts bestowed by her to run against each other. As Pelosi told me with a wistful laugh, “I feel like I’m trying to give everybody an opportunity, and they’re walking out the door!”

Like many Democratic officeholders I interviewed, Pelosi prefers to believe that her party is pretty much where most Americans are, notwithstanding last year’s election results. Voters, she said, “know that the Republicans are awful. Our people didn’t just turn out.” Motivating them to do so, particularly in midterm cycles when there isn’t a presidential candidate to excite the base, has been the party’s greatest challenge, one that can’t be overcome with a heavier investment in field organization and attack ads. The underlying problem, says Wasserman, the congressional analyst, is that even a well-liked Democratic candidate with a distinct message has trouble overcoming the perception that the party he or she belongs to is completely out of touch with the average American voter. “With few exceptions,” he said, “the Democratic Party’s increasingly urban, cosmopolitan image has slowly devastated its prospects in precincts more than a half-hour’s drive from a Lululemon Athletica.”

Pelosi does not entirely disagree with this assessment. While maintaining that the Democrats single-handedly staved off a depression with no assistance from the G.O.P., she readily conceded to me that “Americans think that Republicans are just as good as or better than we are on the economy.” In the past three years, Pelosi has sought to convey to voters that it is her Democrats who are in fact on the side of the middle class. The bumper-sticker slogans Pelosi has offered up, one after the next — “Reigniting the American Dream,” “Middle-Class Jumpstart,” “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” — have not moved the needle in the House Democrats’ favor. She said her party now needed to focus on boosting the fortunes of hard-working Americans and not just Wall Street titans: a Clinton/Warren hybrid that, as she described, came out to something like “It’s the paycheck, genius. Or stupid. Or whatever you want to call the person.”

It remains to be seen whether the middle class will be sold on such a message when one of its leading messengers, a San Francisco Democrat, has been caricatured by the Republicans as the very personification of urban elitism. The paradox, and arguably the symbolic plight of the party writ large, is that for all her liberal appearances, Pelosi is convinced that her party must not mimic the torch-and-pitchfork absolutism of the Tea Party Republicans.

“I’m a progressive and proud of it,” she told me. “But when it comes to getting the job done, I mean,” she laughed, “people say I rammed through the health care bill. If I’d rammed it through, I would’ve rammed through single payer! Look, I know what it’s like to be an advocate for progressive causes. It’s their nature to be persistent and to always want more. That’s their role. Our role in Congress is sharing those values while understanding the art of the possible. You have to govern from the middle.”

By way of illustrating this predilection, Pelosi recalled discussions she frequently had with her point man on bipartisan budget negotiations, Chris Van Hollen. “I always said to Chris when he went to budget meetings: ‘Share the values of our caucus. But be entrepreneurial. If an idea comes up from the right that’s a good idea, well then, it’s a good idea.’?”

Van Hollen had in fact followed her advice. He had negotiated with Republicans. And in so doing, he had, in the eyes of Pelosi’s other Maryland protégé, committed the mortal sin of fulfilling what, in an earlier era, had been widely considered the basic job description of an American legislator: He had been “willing to consider.”

Robert Draper is a contributing writer for the magazine. His book about race and murder in Washington will be published in 2016.