Most Democrats expect the governing agenda of the next Democratic president to be set by, well, whomever that next president might be. Ben Cardin, Democratic senator from Maryland, has other ideas.
“I think we’ll take up our own proposals,” Cardin told The Hill on Tuesday. Asked if he would vote for a “Medicare for All” package — a policy supported by the two most popular 2020 contenders in the Iowa caucuses ― the 76-year-old Cardin suggested the bill wouldn’t even be granted a vote.
“I don’t know that we’ll have a chance to do that,” he said.
Over the past two years, progressives frustrated with the timidity of the Democratic Party’s opposition to President Donald Trump have trained their fire on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Pelosi’s caucus had to drag her kicking and screaming into opening an impeachment inquiry into the president, and she repeatedly invokes political constraints as a reason to eschew a progressive agenda. “What works in San Francisco does not necessarily work in Michigan,” she recently told Bloomberg.
As a practical matter, Pelosi’s political instincts have been unreliable all year. Impeachment is popular, and both Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are polling just fine against Trump in Michigan, a state Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. But the deeper problem is not her judgment, but the outdated attitude she and other Washington Democrats like Cardin have maintained even as Democratic voters have moved on.
The politics of the 2020 primary will alter public opinion, but a fall 2018 survey by the liberal think tank Data for Progress found a broad base of support for progressive policies among all voters — not just Democrats — with 68 percent supporting a wealth tax on fortunes of $100 million or more, 64 percent supporting a green energy infrastructure project and 57 percent supporting fully legalized marijuana. In July 2019, a Data for Progress/YouGov poll showed roughly 80 percent of Democrats support expanding Medicare into “the main health insurance provider for all Americans.” the months since, Medicare for All polling has depended a lot on what Democrats on television have been saying about it.
There is a strange balancing act taking place in which elected officials recognize that they must describe themselves as “progressive” in order to meet the approval of rank-and-file Democratic voters, while at the same time insisting that ambitious reforms are dangerous and immoral.
“I don’t find anything progressive about saddling our kids and our grandkids with a balance sheet that is so far in the red that they’ll never be able to dig their way out,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told the Hill last month, dismissing Medicare for All with a talking point ripped straight from conservative think tanks.
This is the caucus that warns us that Trump is a dangerous and unstable president, while voting to expand his military budget. It’s the caucus that decries Trump’s giveaways to the super rich, but lines up to support his bank deregulation bill. And it’s the caucus that believes Senate Democrats should be slamming the door on the next president’s agenda a full year before the election is even held.
This tension between Democratic voters and their leaders has been evident all year. Back in June, the party experienced its most serious rupture in years after Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) cut a deal to send billions of dollars in fresh funding to Trump’s border detention camps.
Saikat Chakrabarti, a progressive activist then serving as chief of staff to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, responded with a Twitter screed in which he tore into “fiscally conservative” members of the New Democrat and Blue Dog caucuses as “the new Southern Democrats.” “They certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the ’40s,” he wrote in a since-deleted Tweet.
The analogy was more than a little overwrought; the most glaring divide between the Dixiecrats of yore and their northern colleagues was over Jim Crow and civil rights. But recent polling from Pew Research Center shows that today’s Democratic party is more united and more progressive than ever around questions of race and immigration. What made the June vote so deflating was that elected Democrats in Washington had simply failed to stand up for the obvious values of their voters.
But Chakrabarti was correct to note that a fissure has opened within the party, one that may well put an expiration date on the emerging Democratic mega-coalition.
Since the Barack Obama presidency, rank-and-file Democrats have proved ideologically flexible ― they generally identify as ”progressive” or ”liberal” but continue to support more conservative Democratic incumbents in primary elections. Voters are typically willing to defer to top Democrats for what counts as “liberal” or “progressive.”
With a Republican in the White House, these contradictory impulses have had few governing implications. But the increasingly fractious disputes among elected Democrats and liberal intellectuals that have been breaking out since Trump’s election will eventually filter down to the electorate ― particularly if either Warren or Sanders win the presidential nomination and Democrats in the Senate continue to badmouth key planks of their agenda.
The sheer size of the Democratic voter wave on the horizon, meanwhile, seems to indicate that there will eventually be a lot of variation among them come 2021, especially as those voters begin to look beyond a common loathing for Trump. In the past, such massive coalitions have been key to progressive policy victories, but they have involved often vicious intraparty feuds that demanded skillful leadership and a willingness to risk political majorities for the sake of policy victories.
Though primary voters continue to fret about “electability” as their overriding concern heading into the presidential primaries, the trend line for 2020 is a Democratic blowout. In 2017, Democrats crushed in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races and picked up a Senate seat in Alabama ― repeat, Alabama. In 2018, Democrats romped from Oklahoma City to Orange County, California, picking up 41 House seats and a Senate seat in Arizona. On Tuesday night, Democrats won a gubernatorial election in Kentucky and appear to have extinguished the last remnants of the Republican Party as an electoral force in Virginia.
As ever, the future remains unwritten, but there is currently every reason to believe that Nov. 3, 2020, will be a big night for the Democratic Party. The sheer disgust that Trump evokes in much of the electorate is mobilizing otherwise ambivalent citizens to participate in record numbers, and most of them are voting Democrat. Voter turnout on Tuesday night was the highest for a Kentucky gubernatorial election in 24 years. Nationwide turnout in 2018 was the highest in 40 years for a midterm election.
The big question will be what to do with this majority, which may not last long and may not reappear for decades to come. For many Democrats in Washington, the answer is: not much.