Can’t our side ever see the battlefield clearly? Can’t we perceive which battle needs to be fought?
We’ve already blown it too many times,* and now there are signs we might blow it again: the Democratic side has just squandered an important moment in the battle against Trump and the GOP, by getting distracted by the wrong battle.
To see the seriousness of that error, let’s start with how the electoral prospects of the two sides have shifted – adversely for the Democrats — since as recently as a month ago.
Back then, the GOP appeared to be on the verge of a civil war growing out of the ugly but increasingly successful campaign of Donald Trump to seize the Republican nomination for president. The Democrats’ campaign, meanwhile, was still unfolding in a civil and generally even constructive fashion.
Since then, the Republicans have been able to re-unify their party a good deal more than seemed likely. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, just the opposite has been happening. Far from coming together in preparation for the crucial general election, the divisions in the Democratic Party have widened, and the bitterness between the factions has intensified.
The cost of these shifts is visible on the futures markets. In every major category – including the likelihood of the Democrats’ winning the presidential race and taking over the Senate – the probabilities of Democratic success have been substantially downgraded.
The main reason for this lost ground is that an important segment of the Democratic Party – and by this I mean Senator Sanders and many of his followers – has failed to understand which battle it has become time to fight. Ever since the April 25 primaries, when Hillary Clinton swept highly populous states like New York and Pennsylvania, the contest for the nomination has been effectively over. Though not yet “mathematically” eliminated, for the past month Senator Sanders has had no plausible scenario to the nomination.
Going after Trump and the GOP, I have argued, was always the best way for Bernie – whom I have supported — to fight for the nomination. But surely, once that race was essentially decided, there should have been no question: it was time to turn the campaign rhetoric toward the next and most urgent battle: for a Democratic White House, for liberal control over the Supreme Court, for breaking the Republicans’ obstructionist log-jam in Congress, and for a government that will acknowledge and act on the urgent challenge of climate change.
With stakes like those, one would have hoped that the Democratic side would come together to take on the task of defeating Donald Trump and the GOP. This was a crucial moment – a teachable moment – as the Republican world was compelled to deal with the reality of Trump’s victory. It was a chance to impact how the Republicans – office holders and voters – would make that transition.
Had both Democratic candidates, from their prominent platform, spoken to the nation as Elizabeth Warren has been doing – highlighting what makes Trump unfit to lead this nation – the Republicans would have been reminded of why almost two-thirds of them once regarded Trump unfavorably.
Instead, distracted by a needless intra-party fight, our side stayed out of the vital remaining battle, and squandered an opportunity to weaken our opponents.
Of course, the Republicans – with their toe-the-line ethic – are good at unity. And of course, they would prefer not to have to face the implications of nominating a boorish proto-fascist demagogue. Much more comfortable for them to pretend he’s just a normal presidential nominee, and to pretend that coming into line behind him is just the normal practice of Republican Party unity.
And the GOP did have the good fortune to resolve its nomination fight in time to avoid a potentially catastrophic war over the nomination at the convention. Nonetheless, the Trump nomination continued to threaten to fracture the Republican Party.
It was a great opportunity for the Democrats. A party that knows how and when to fight would have seized that moment to proclaim the ugly threat to America of a Trump presidency and to tell what it says about today’s Republican Party that it would cough up such a man to be its standard bearer.
For both GOP office-holders and rank-and-file voters, that would have made it harder to move from Stop-Trump to Yes-Trump.
The failure of the Democrats to raise a unified voice with the right message eased the way for the GOP to come together behind its previously unthinkable candidate. Having failed to help widen the rift in the GOP and make them weaker, the Democrats will now have to face a more cohesive and therefore stronger opponent.
While the failure to seize that moment cannot be undone, the battle is still there to be fought.
More particularly, it is still possible for Senator Sanders– who bears primary responsibility for this unfortunate misreading of the battlefield and thus for the ground lost – to play a major role in winning that ground back. And he can do so in a way entirely compatible with the goals – short of the nomination, which he has already lost – that have inspired his campaign.
More about that in the next piece: “A Win-Win Way for Bernie to Lead.”
*Note from above: One example that should be reasonably fresh in everyone’s mind: How did President Obama ever let the across-the-board obstructionism be a winning political strategy for the Republicans? It’s a fight Obama could have won, but he never even took the fight on. There was from President Obama nothing like what Harry Truman did in 1948, running against his “do-nothing Congress,” which was way more productive than the obstructionist Congresses to which Obama has acquiesced without much protest.
How would the Republicans have been able to maintain their priority on blocking everything to make the president fail, if as soon as their strategy became clear the President had used his rhetorical skills to mobilize the public against the GOP putting partisan advantage ahead of doing the people’s business? What if he had joined the battle and said to the Republicans: “I’m going to campaign against you in your own districts, from now until as long as it takes, if you persist on this effort to cripple the people’s government for mere partisan advantage.”
But if there has ever been a single powerful denunciation from President Obama of this fundamentally unpatriotic Republican conduct, I cannot recall it. The Republicans fought him with everything they had, while the President never unsheathed his sword.
The list of battles forfeited, or poorly waged, goes back through acquiescing in the crimes of the Bush II regime, to the Swiftboating of John Kerry, to the Bush II squandering of national unity for the sake of politicizing the response to terrorism, to the 2000 Florida electoral debacle, to the scandalous Republican effort to find a way to destroy Bill Clinton’s presidency.