In his article, “Clintonian Democrats Are Peddling Myths to Cling to Power: Centrists are falsely equating Trump with Nixon, and Sanders with McGovern, because they’re scared of what a leftist party means for them” at The New Republic, Bob Moser, TNR’s editor-at-large, makes a strong case that the worst thing Democrats can do is respond to their party’s rising progressive tide with a fear-driven retreat into the timid moderation Dems embraced in the pre-Obama era. Moser’s article is in part a response to the centrist agenda of New Democracy, and partly a response to a much-buzzed about Washington Post article, entitled “Trump Is On track to Win Reelection” by Doug Sosnik, a fomer senior advisor to President Bill Clinton.
Moser dismisses New Democracy as “merely a reassertion of the wealth-first economics, go-slow social progressivism, and hawkish foreign policy peddled by white Democratic power-brokers and Clintonian neoliberals for three decades now.” He describes Sosnik’s article as “built on tortured logic and tendentious claims” and translates Sosnik’s conclusion as ”Let the old, white, Democratic establishment pick its favorite for 2020, and everybody else get in line. Or else.” Moser adds,
The “no more McGoverns” argument has been recycled and appropriated by anti-liberal Democrats—with nips and tucks to suit the needs of the moment—in practically every presidential election since 1972. They wielded it like a tiki torch against Jesse Jackson’s populist insurgency in 1988, and invoked it to torpedo Howard Dean in 2004. And after its ironclad logic failed to derail Barack Obama in 2008, the “McGovern threat” was revived with a vengeance against Sanders in 2016.
The goal of these disinformation campaigns has always been the same: to frighten the left into falling in line with the moneyed masters of the party. And at a moment when the party is finally abandoning the New Democratic formula—suck up to big business and the military-industrial complex, pander to white supremacy, and win!—fear-mongering is the only thin reed of hope the “moderates” have to retain their supremacy in the party…By reviving the hoary old arguments about why McGovern lost to Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in American history, the old New Democrats aim to once again scarify a majority of Democrats into reluctantly backing a neoliberal championing wealth-first (sorry: “middle class”) economics and a bloodthirsty view of American power on the international stage.
Moser writes that “otherwise intelligent Democrats still have a strange Pavlovian response to the dire warnings they issue, like clockwork, every four years: Embracing liberalism will always and forever end in defeat (even if Barack Obama disproved that theory not once but twice).” Yet, many left-Democrats faulted Obama for being a centrist and too cozy with Wall St. after he was elected and re-elected. But Obama did run a bold campaign in 2008, challenging Americans to rise above our fears and live up to our best progressive ideals. In between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party, there is a broad spectum from which Democrats can run winning campaigns.
Moser does an excellent job of shredding the notion that Trump is like Nixon, who Moser shows was a hell of a lot smarter, more accomplished and capable than Trump, despite Nixon’s corruption and poor judgement on Vietnam. Nixon ran for reelection in 1972 “on an impressive record of progressive domestic policies, a landmark arms-reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, and the historic un-thawing of relations with China. Again, emphatically: not Trump.”
The centrist characterization of Sens. Sanders and Warren as neo-McGovernites is also way-overstated. McGovern was essentially an anti-war candidate, and both senators are today staking out a tough, economic populist approach far more broadly credible than than McGovern’s best efforts. If either Sanders or Warren gets nominated, you can bet that they will be campaigning hard in the blue collar precincts of the Rust Belt, as will any Democratic nominee. And, even if neither one gets nominated in 2020, their hard-headed, progressive economic advocacy seems to be catching on with other potential Democratic candidates.
Moser is also correct that the divisions within the Democratic party were far worse during Nixon’s reign. Snarky comments on facebook between Bernie Bros and Hillary Heads are pretty tame compared to the factional conflicts among Democrats in the late 1960s and 70s. However, Jason Le Miere notes at Newsweek that “According to the analysis of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, fewer than 80 percent of those who voted for Sanders, an independent, in the Democratic primary did the same for Clinton when she faced off against Trump a few months later. What’s more, 12 percent of those who backed Sanders actually cast a vote for Trump.” However, about 12 percent of Republican primary voters cast ballots for Clinton in the general election.
But Moser may be too casual in asserting that “The old New Democrats know perfectly well that the chances of Trump winning reelection in 2020 are approximately as good as the Democratic nomination going to Kanye West, with Kim Kardashian as his running mate.” Trump’s Electoral College win in November shows that any fool thing can happen, especially if the economy is in good shape in the fall of 2020 and Dems fail to run an effective campaign, regardless of the nominee. Neither of those scenarios is all that unrealistic. Overconfidence is as dangerous to Democratic prospects as being driven by fear. In fact, that may be one of the salient lessons of Clinton’s Electoral College defeat.
There is every reason for Democrats to be optimistic and to reject a campaign limited by outdated fears, and Obama’s 2008 victory still provides a useful template for a fear-free, vision-driven campaign. Democrats can’t count on having a messenger as eloquent and charismatic as Obama in the next presidential election. But the Democratic nominee can benefit from the lessons of 2008 and 2012, as well as 2016.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned between now and 2020, and the debate between moderate and progressive Democrats will continue. What’s more urgent right now is for Democrats to get focused on mobilizing a landslide, nation-wide upset in 2018. Nothing would do more to help set the stage for the working majority needed to empower the next Democratic president.