When Donald Trump announces his Supreme Court nominee on Monday, it will represent one of the lowest points for the Democratic Party in recent memory.
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to step down from the bench, handing Trump his second Supreme Court pick and the opportunity to shift the ideological balance of the court was described by multiple Democrats as a “gut punch,” an acknowledgment that a conservative court would throw generational liberal victories like legalized abortion and LGBT rights into doubt.
The political left broadly believes the 2018 midterm elections are the starting point of their return to power. Polls have consistently shown Democratic voters much more enthusiastic about voting than Republicans, and given the party an edge in the generic congressional ballot. Wins in special elections in Alabama, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have heightened their expectations – and sent online fundraising totals soaring.
Yet with the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, Democrats are at a crossroads, confronting the harsh reality of their lack of power in Washington amid renewed and increasingly heated internal debates over the path forward.
There are fundamental disagreements on issues like immigration and health care, with the progressive base of the party and many of its 2020 presidential prospects pushing to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement and pass “Medicare for all,” while the more moderate and establishment wing, focused on defending a handful of Senate seats in red states this fall, stakes out a middle ground.
A tactical dilemma
The Democratic base is pushing for an all-out war on Trump and his administration, while incumbents facing tough re-elections in typically conservative strongholds are touting how much they’ve worked with the President. Some of those red state Democrats may even end up voting for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
In the same way the tea party emerged during Barack Obama’s presidency and forced Republicans to deal with their own internal divisions, there are early signs the Democratic establishment could face a similar challenge from progressive insurgents – a source of both energy and anxiety – as it seeks to bridge geographic, ideological and generational divides that have lingered under the surface since the 2016 presidential election.
The latest window into those divides is a push to abolish ICE and transition its responsibilities to other agencies. The calls gained traction when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democratic Socialist, ousted the No. 4-ranking House Democrat, New York Rep. Joe Crowley, in a late June primary. Crowley has served in the House for two decades.
During the primary, Crowley had called ICE a “fascist” organization, but stopped short of calling for it to be abolished.
“My opponent has literally called ICE ‘fascist,’ yet he refuses to take the stance of abolishing it, which, to me, is morally incomprehensible. Words mean something, and the moment you have identified something as fascist, that with it carries a moral responsibility to abolish it,” Ocasio-Cortez told Vogue.
“That’s what I’m talking about when we say that norms have been eroded: that we literally have elected officials arguing to basically retain fascist agencies. And that’s on the left.”
Since Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, several top Democratic prospects for the 2020 presidential primary – including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – have called for the abolition or overhaul of ICE. California Sen. Kamala Harris has been critical but stopped short of demanding it be eliminated.
The party’s 2020 prospects have also moved rapidly leftward on health care – an issue where progressives’ desire for a confrontational approach extends to the upper ranks of the Democratic National Committee.
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the DNC deputy chair who’s stepping down from the House to run for attorney general in his home state, recently told progressives that Democratic lawmakers should be pressured to take a position on “Medicare for all” – or single-payer health insurance.
“If you’re not ready to take the heat, you shouldn’t be in the kitchen,” Ellison said at a conference focused on the topic in June.
“Look at it this way: you’re actually doing some of these hand-wringing Dems a favor because the bill is, in fact, popular, and people do actually like it,” he added. “But you’ve got to have the guts to get up an explain it.”
Democrats who are focused on winning Senate seats in November’s midterm elections and on returning the Great Lakes region to party’s win column in the 2020 presidential election have expressed concern over the shift to the left.
“I think that you can’t win the White House without the Midwest,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, said earlier this month on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”
Ocasio-Cortez shot back on Twitter, in response to Duckworth’s comments, that “strong, clear advocacy for working class Americans isn’t just for the Bronx.”
She pointed out that Sanders won the 2016 primaries in Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Indiana. “We then lost several of those states in the general. What’s the plan to prevent a repeat?” she tweeted.
Her point has at times played out in Democratic primaries in those states, too. In Nebraska, moderate former Rep. Brad Ashford lost a House contest to his more progressive opponent Kara Eastman this spring.
Sea change or outlier?
Insurgent candidates have not done well everywhere.
In House primaries, moderate candidates with more money and name recognition, generally the kind preferred by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, have won most contested primaries.
It’s too early to know whether Ocasio-Cortez’s win in New York was the beginning of a trend of progressive candidates. That will become clearer in September primaries in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces a challenge from the left by Cynthia Nixon, and in several House races in Massachusetts – particularly the race between Rep. Mike Capuano and Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley, who has been less critical of Capuano’s votes than his tactics, which she says should be bolder and more confrontational.
The clearer shifts in the party are taking place with its field of prospective 2020 candidates. Former Vice President Joe Biden hasn’t weighed in on policy specifics much in recent months. But the senators who could run – including Warren, Harris, Gillibrand, Sanders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and others – have broadly embraced progressive positions on health care, immigration, gun control, marijuana legalization and more.
Most Democrats also say they’d strongly prefer an energized electorate, even if the progressive base pulls the party leftward in ways that might not appeal to moderate voters.
“I was there in 2014 when we lost a lot of good members because there wasn’t enough Democratic enthusiasm. Now, suddenly, we have too much?” said Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton presidential campaign aide Jesse Ferguson. “I would take this so-called ‘problem’ over that very real problem any day of the week.”
The Democratic hand-wringing over whether progressive positions might alienate moderate voters has some similarities to the aftermath of the 2004 election, when Democrats debated how to discuss the war in Iraq and worried that demands like a fixed date for withdrawal would turn off voters before ultimately being swept into power in 2006 and 2008 on strong opposition to the war.
This time, the concern for Democrats is the fate of Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – all running for re-election in states where Trump is popular.
A Democrat working on 2018 Senate races said the contests will turn on two questions: whether voters want candidates who will go along with Trump’s agenda or place a check on his power, and health care, which has been at center of Democratic campaigns across the party’s ideological spectrum.
Other issues, like abolishing ICE, won’t fundamentally change these races, the source said, adding that the belief voters would be affected by Trump demonizing Democrats on immigration – a tactic that did not work for Republican Ed Gillespie in 2017’s Virginia gubernatorial race – is misunderstanding the electorate.
“This is a view of the electorate in which voters are kind of a leaf in the wind, floating from national issues to cable hit,” the source said. “That is not how voters behave in the real world. They do not fleet from tweet to tweet.”
Progressive outsiders have been making a similar case for years, arguing that voters don’t view the issues on an a la carte basis. The greater threat, they warn, is being seen to back down from a fight because of conservative criticism or a skeptical round of polling.
“A lot of Democrats, because they’re trying to play this political game, calculate exactly what this is going to do and that’s going to mean – people see through that. They see through bulls***,” said Justice Democrats executive director Corbin Trent, who was Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director during her race against Crowley.
“Ocasio is resonating not just because she won an election. She’s resonating because when she talks, when she says what she thinks, politically or otherwise, people believe it.”