The Struggle Between Clinton and Sanders Is Not Over

Sep 7, 2017 by


Even in the Trump era, “together” is not the first word that comes to mind where Democrats are concerned. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

The surge in Democratic enthusiasm and activism driven by animosity to President Trump is proving to be a mixed blessing.

Renewed fervor improves Democratic prospects in 2018 House and Senate elections. At the same time, in a development reminiscent of the Tea Party Republican insurgency of 2010, moderate and centrist Democratic incumbents face primary challengers from the Sanders left.

In some cases, these challengers raise the threat of bitterly contested midterm primaries that could leave House and Senate nominees weakened for the general election.

Two moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, both face primary challenges from the insurgent progressive wing of their party, as do a growing number of Democratic House incumbents.

Center versus left disputes within Democratic ranks have surfaced on several fronts, even as Democrats of all stripes have come to recognize the devastating costs of the Trump-era Republican attack on the nature of truth and the parallel rise of “alternative facts.”

Intra-Democratic conflict resurfaced this week with the release of anti-Sanders passages from Hillary Clinton’s new book, “What Happened.”

Clinton wrote that “attacks” Sanders made during the primary season

caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” campaign. I don’t know if that bothered Bernie or not.

Clinton added that Sanders “didn’t get into the race to make sure a Democrat won the White House, he got in to disrupt the Democratic Party.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Sanders countered: “My response is that right now it’s appropriate to look forward and not backward.”

There is good evidence that defections by Sanders’ Democratic primary voters to Trump on Nov. 8 played a decisive role in Trump’s victory.

Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, calculated that Sanders-to-Trump voters were key to Trump’s victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The accompanying chart, which is based on the 2016 survey conducted by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, shows how crucial these voters were.

Voting for Sanders — and Trump

In three critical states, people voting for Sanders in the primary and Trump in the general election far outnumbered Trump’s ultimate margins of victory there.

In three critical states, people voting for Sanders in the primary and Trump in the general election far outnumbered Trump’s ultimate margins of victory there.


Estimated Sanders primary

voters supporting Trump:










Trump margin

of victory

The internal battle over how to maximize the political strength of the party reflects the fact that it is made up of a coalition of multiple, sometimes overlapping, factions with an intense desire to win, but in constant competition with one another. These factions include economic populists, led by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, along with Jon Tester and Sherrod Brown; increasingly influential women, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Warren; an equally influential group of African-American politicians, including Cory Booker, Deval Patrick and Harris; Hispanics determined to gain power, including Julián and Joaquín Castro and Xavier Becerra; and a still strong but often challenged white male Democratic establishment that includes Joe Biden and Terry McAuliffe.

Many of the current conflicts enlarge upon the ideological divisions that dominated the 2016 presidential primaries, with Hillary Clinton representing the centrist wing and Bernie Sanders the progressive wing.

The debate going into the next election cycle raises the question of whether the Democratic Party will be most successful with continued — or enlarged — support from a segment of the white working class: 34 percent of non-college white women and 23 percent of non-college white men voted for Clinton in 2016. Can these numbers be maintained or improved or should Democrats look elsewhere — for more votes from minorities and deeper support from women, along with continued improvement among upscale whites — to piece together victory in 2018 or 2020?

There is an argument to be made that the party has in fact already moved sharply in a leftward direction.

In a phone interview, Mark Longabaugh, a senior strategist in the Sanders campaign, cited data from the Pew Research Center showing that the percentage of Democrats describing themselves as “liberal” grew from 27 to 48 percent from 2000 to 2017, while self-identified Democratic moderates fell from 45 to 36 percent. Conservative Democrats dropped from 23 to 16 percent.

“The party is still this wrestling about its identity,” Longabaugh said. He suggested that Democrats are stalled by what he described as “a sort of rubbernecking, watching this 15-car pileup in the Republican Party” on the other side of the road while “we are stuck in traffic, not moving forward.”

Despite the continuing ideological confusion, there are a number of positive signs for the Democratic Party.

In a reflection of the determination among Democratic voters to take control of the House out of the hands of Donald Trump’s Republican Party, individuals’ contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have risen from $32.4 million in the first seven months of 2013 to $50.2 million in the first seven months of this year.

Not only have contributions from individuals (as opposed to political action committees) to the D.C.C.C. surged, but the amount raised from individuals is triple the $15.8 million raised by the National Republican Congressional Committee through the first seven months of this year.

The same cannot be said about the Democratic National Committee — battered by the anger of Sanders supporters. The D.N.C. has seen a much smaller increase in individual contributions over the same period, from $30.7 million to $33.0 million. The surge in anti-Trump activity across the country makes the limited D.N.C. fund-raising success surprising and speaks to the gravity of the committee’s problems.

Signs of the stress the Democratic Party is under are evident in the degree of institutional fracturing.

Sanders has created what amounts to his own party organization, Our Revolution, which endorses candidates — a signal to voters of Sanders’ backing and of its separation from the Democratic Party. In a revealing statement of purpose the organization declares that

Our Revolution will empower the next generation of progressive leaders by inspiring and recruiting progressive candidates to run for offices across the entire spectrum of government.

For candidates “inspired by the ‘political revolution,’ ” Our Revolution promises to provide

the unparalleled digital tools, organizing knowledge and grassroots support successfully utilized throughout Senator Sanders’ campaign.

Wariness, if not downright hostility, dominates relations between Our Revolution and the Democratic Party.

The tensions between the two are rooted in the disclosure during the 2016 primaries that leaders of the D.N.C. favored Clinton while privately disparaging Sanders’ bid. In February of this year, Thomas Perez, the candidate favored by the Democratic establishment, beat Keith Ellison — who was endorsed by Sanders and who has a strong following among the party’s progressive wing, as well as among its African-American constituency — in the election to become chairman of the D.N.C.

Further compounding the conflict, Sanders has declined to share his donor lists with the Democratic Party.

“We are working hard to regain trust,” Jess O’Connell, the new executive director of the D.N.C., said in a phone interview, although there appears to have been no letup in the tension between the party and the Sanders camp.

In June, the Nation conducted an interview with Nina Turner, a former Ohio State Senator, who is now president of Our Revolution. In April 2016, Turner had famously objected that “brand loyalty” was causing African-American voters to support Hillary Clinton.

The Nation asked:

How will Our Revolution relate to the DNC, the DCCC, the DSCC, that kind of establishment that so many activists and politicians, including you, have frequently criticized?

Her reply:

I don’t think it is our job nor our obligation to fit in. It’s their job to fit in with us.


And what about the Democratic Party at large. Do you see Our Revolution working to bring some unity to factions in the party?

Turner’s reply:

No, not really. I want people to be unified. I would say that the board of directors wants that too, but we’re here for a very specific purpose, and that is to help the everyday Americans in this country who feel left behind.

Two months later, in August, relations remained hostile.

Buzzfeed reported that in an interview, Turner described the D.N.C. as “dictatorial,” “arrogant,” “pompous,” “superficial,” “tone-deaf,” “tone-dead,” “out of line,” “insulting” and “absolutely insulting.”

Turner declined my requests for an interview. But in a sense her views on the Democratic establishment are moderate compared to those voiced by groups and individuals further to the left.

Two organizations that have joined forces, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, are run by veterans of the Sanders presidential campaign including Zack Exley and Saikat Chakrabarti. Their goal: replacing “every establishment politician in Congress in 2018,” although so far they have endorsed 10 House candidates and one Senate candidate.

The two groups, which together reported receipts of $1.2 million this year, have set their sights on Manchin, in West Virginia. Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats have endorsed Manchin’s primary challenger, Paula Jean Swearengin, who describes herself as “a coal miner’s daughter, granddaughter, niece and stepdaughter.”

In the view of Justice Democrats:

The Democratic Party is broken, and the corporate wing of the party is responsible. By aligning with Wall Street over working men and women, the Democratic Party has allowed Republicans to take over most state legislatures, most governorships, Congress, and the presidency.

CREDO Mobile, which does not endorse candidates but instead channels support to liberal groups like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, goes a step further. It is willing to sacrifice centrist Democrats for the sake of ideological consistency.

Murshed Zaheed, CREDO’s political director, told The Associated Press in March,

I’d rather have 44 or 45 awesome Democrats who are lock step together than 44 or 45 really awesome Democrats and three to four weak-kneed individuals who are going to dilute the party.

I spoke with Zaheed by phone. He stood by his comment to The A.P. He described himself as a “die-hard Democrat” but he wants “a Democratic Party that is going to stand up to corporations and big business.”

Insofar as these intraparty power struggles are fought out in primary elections, the more passionately committed the faction, the greater its advantage. Ideologically committed voters turn out in higher percentages in primaries than less ideological moderates.

The Pew data cited above reveal that the Democratic Party is at a tipping point, with the percentage of self-identified liberals in the Democratic electorate currently at 48 percent and rising. This suggests that in the struggle for power among the competing racial, ethnic and gender constituencies, the Sanders-Warren populist wing could emerge as the dominant force in the selection of a 2020 Democratic nominee.

In theory, the selection of a nominee loyal to the left-liberal wing in the 2020 general election would test the political viability of a Democratic Party that explicitly challenges corporate power — and indeed the capitalist system itself. Victory would legitimate the arguments of the Sanders-Warren wing.

In practice, such a victory would leave the party in ideological limbo. Could Sanders or one of his revolutionary offspring actually govern? Could such a politician win against a candidate other than Donald Trump? Can the leftward movement of Democratic voters find an echo among independent and moderate voters in the general electorate?

These fundamental questions are very hard to answer. Trump or no Trump, they will continue to plague the Democratic Party, not just for the next two election cycles, but on into the foreseeable future.

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