Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart is a CNN political analyst. He was the White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
You simply don’t get 75 plus million votes as a Democrat running for President unless you’ve put together a broad and ideological diverse coalition. And a broad coalition generally means the various factions of the party have put their differences aside temporarily in the service of the greater good – defeating the Republicans. The operative word in that sentence is temporarily.
Remember the early Democratic debates. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders accused everyone on the stage of being too conservative, including progressive Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a race to see who could get furthest to the left. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg argued that the ultra-progressives would take the party off the progressive cliff leading to a second term for President Donald Trump. It was hard to imagine that everyone on that stage would eventually come around to enthusiastically get behind Joe Biden and work together to defeat Donald Trump.
But that is exactly what happened. The divisions in the party were put aside for several months and the election results reflect that all parts of the big tent party showed up on Election Day. That was driven by the common belief that the country could not survive another Trump term. But having beaten Trump it’s now inevitable most leaders will leave the big tent and go back to their own smaller tents.
And, as progressives and moderates seek to enhance their role in a Biden administration, there is an all-out battle for claiming who won the election for Biden. Progressives argue correctly that without Black and urban turnout, Trump would have won by a significant margin. They also point to the large numbers of young people who showed up strongly for the Biden/Harris ticket, particularly in battleground states. And everything they say is true.
More moderate Democrats argue that Biden’s appeal was certainly his ability to appeal to core Democratic constituencies. But Biden, they argue, won because he chipped away enough support for Trump, particularly from White men.
They are also right, without these groups, Biden could not have achieved a victory.
And in this election, we also saw a significant influence of Republicans for Biden. Whether it be the work of groups like the Lincoln Project or Republican Voters Against Trump, there is some evidence that Republican support for Biden at least played a part in shaping the media narrative for the race.
They are all sniping at each other now because they are fighting to influence the direction of the Biden administration. They all firmly believe Biden could not have won without them, which they are largely correct in asserting, and now they want to be awarded with the ability to push Biden to the left or to the center.
This fight was predictable and inevitable. And, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Biden’s ability to get things done as President will depend on his ability to craft political and policy proposals that can garner support from each of these groups. His coalition will without a doubt fray and likely shift as we get further from the election but holding the bulk of it together will be the predictive measure of his ability to get things done.
At the center of the fight today is progressive New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, moderate Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and some leading Republicans like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
AOC is pushing for aggressive action on the progressive agenda, arguing Biden owes her wing of the party. The more conservative Democrats argue the losses the party suffered in congressional races came directly because of the perception of progressive calls for defunding the police and for the Green New Deal. They believe moving too far to the left will mean further defeats in the future. And for Republicans like Kasich, who have warned Democrats about going too far left, I believe that they are going to be more focused on repairing the damage done to their own party post-Trump.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there wasn’t this kind of battle facing President-elect Trump. The party overall was just happy they won. And therein lies one of the big differences between the two parties in my opinion. Republicans value power above all else, policy comes second. Democrats often pursue policies first even if it hinders their ability to hold onto power.
For Democrats, this will be a messy, at times painful, time of political calibration. Fingers will be pointed, resentments will resurface and damaging public comments will be made. But there is no way to avoid this and shape the legislative and political strategy for Biden at the same time. And Biden will have to use his power aggressively and judiciously to keep his agenda moving forward and keep the Republicans on the defensive.
In terms of the immediate future, the real risk to Democrats is internal fighting that will limit their ability to win the two runoff races in Georgia in January. Control of the Senate is within reach, but only if that coalition can stick together for another two months.
There is an old adage that victory has many parents and defeat is an orphan. A wise old Republican friend once told me you make most of your lifelong friends on losing campaigns. He argued that on losing campaigns, much like war, there were no spoils to be divided up. How the Democrats divide up their spoils – like who gets key positions in the new government and which policy agendas get moved forward first – going forward will lead to hard feelings and tough fights. But they will also determine just how effective the new President will be.