When a political party is cast into the wilderness the way the Democrats were last fall, the road ahead isn’t always clear. It took Republicans some time to find their footing after the 2008 elections when voters handed Barack Obama’s party complete control of the levers of power in DC, along with a large reservoir of public goodwill and a clear mandate for change.
The GOP had to come to grips with the fact that it had not just lost the White House in a rout but had also taken a drubbing in both House and Senate elections. In 2008, the Democrats gained 21 House seats and collectively won 13 million more votes than the GOP candidates. In the Senate, a net gain of eight seats gave the Democrats a veto-proof majority, and their candidates won nearly 5 million more votes than Republicans.
In the two years between Obama’s election and the 2010 midterms, the internecine battle in the GOP had the feel of a purification by fire. The party decided that it was a lack of ideological rigidity that was to blame for its disastrous 2008 showing, and the Tea Party movement arose to purge it of those seen as insufficiently committed to conservative principles. In the end, it was that movement that eventually swept the party back to control of the House in 2010.
Now, there are signs that Democrats, some of them at least, are beginning to turn against one another in the way Republicans did in 2008.
Last week, newly elected Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, undertook an awkward unity tour.
The object was to try to accelerate the healing of a wound first opened during the presidential primary when the party split between the centrist Clinton and the more progressive Sanders. That wound was reopened during the election for the DNC chairmanship when Sanders, who had run a much more left-wing campaign than Clinton, did not support Clinton ally Perez.
Their joint appearances often felt stiff and awkward, but things became difficult when the tour reached Omaha, Nebraska. Both Perez and Sanders came out in support of Democrat Heath Mello, who is running for mayor there. Their decision to embrace Mello, who opposes abortion and had voted for restrictions on it while serving in the state legislature, drew immediate fire from members of the party most dedicated to its pro-choice platform.
Perez quickly caved and indicated that Mello had, too, saying in a statement, “I fundamentally disagree with Heath Mello's personal beliefs about women's reproductive health. It is a promising step that Mello now shares the Democratic Party's position on women's fundamental rights.”
He went on to suggest that there is no room in the party for candidates who disagree with the pro-choice elements of its platform. “Every candidate who runs as a Democrat should do the same because every woman should be able to make her own health choices. Period.”
Sanders, for his part, stood his ground, noting that if Democrats want to win elections in states like Nebraska, which went to Donald Trump by 30 percentage points in November, demanding purity on social issues like abortion rights isn’t going to get them there.
Then there was the rush of Democratic lawmakers and progressive pundits denouncing former president Barack Obama for his decision to accept an offer of $400,000 to deliver a private speech at an event sponsored by a Wall Street bank.
Obama will almost certainly never run for public office of any kind, ever again. As president, he signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act into law, and regulators working for his administration cracked down on the financial industry, both in terms of its treatment of customers and in the amount of risk it should be allowed to pose to the US economy. But Democrats, elected and otherwise, treated his acceptance of the speaking fee -- something he is absolutely free to do as a private citizen -- as a betrayal.
Sanders declared the payments as “distasteful.” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she was “troubled” by the former president’s willingness to accept it. Pundits were even harsher. In a single piece, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus called the speech “unfortunate” and “distasteful” and accused Obama of “unseemly money-grubbing” and “rapaciousness.”
Marcus noted that Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama have already signed a $60 million book contract, and wrote, “That should leave plenty for the Obamas to live as luxuriously as they could want.”
While that’s probably true, the obvious comeback to Marcus, Sanders, Warren et al is that it’s literally none of their business what financial decisions a private citizen makes. Their counter is that Obama’s decision to cash in damages his legacy and by implication the Democratic Party, by failing to live up to some version of ideological purity.
“Imagine the powerful message Obama would have sent — the reverse precedent — had he chosen to renounce this road to riches,” Marcus wrote.
What’s strange about Democrats apparently trying to address their defeat in 2016 by demanding greater ideological purity from their candidates and representatives, is that it’s not at all clear that they are in the same position Republicans were eight years ago.
John McCain in 2008, despite an excellent net public approval rating of nearly +11 percent on Election Day, lost the popular vote to Obama by nearly 10 million ballots. Last November, Hillary Clinton came into Election Day with a dismal net approval rating approaching -13 percent, but still won the popular vote by more than two million ballots.
Last November, Democrats gained seats in both Houses of Congress -- just not enough to take control of either one of them. Democratic candidates for Senate received over than 11 million more votes than Republican candidates did. In the House, Democrats received 1.4 million fewer votes than Republicans, just 1.1 percent of the votes cast.
On the face of it, those numbers don’t speak to a party in need of ritual purification.
What’s more, while the Republicans in 2008 were facing a wildly popular new president who had leadership in both houses of Congress more or less united behind him, Democrats in 2017 really, really aren’t.
Donald Trump is the least popular president at this point in his term in the history of modern polling. The Republican Congress, rather than unifying behind Trump, has instead handed him a series of embarrassing defeats on the GOP’s signature issue: repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
For Democrats in 2017, the choice seems like a no-brainer. They can come together to channel public resistance to an unpopular president and a dysfunctional Republican Congress into support for their party, or they can form up in a circular firing squad and blast away.
Incredibly, it’s not obvious which option they’re going to choose.