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Divided Democrats Risk Midterm Defeat

The Democratic Party has a history of letting the right set its agenda and has time and again kowtowed to Republican posturing instead of articulating a clear oppositional vision.

In California last weekend, the state Democratic Party failed to endorse longtime incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (pictured above right), instead, 54 percent of delegates threw their support behind a far more progressive candidate running against Feinstein—Kevin de León. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In California last weekend, the state Democratic Party failed to endorse longtime incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (pictured above right), instead, 54 percent of delegates threw their support behind a far more progressive candidate running against Feinstein—Kevin de León. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A newly leaked email from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) from last October revealed that in the wake of a horrific mass shooting the liberal party was urging members to sound like their conservative counterparts. “There will be time for politics and policy discussion, but any message today should be on offering thoughts/prayers for victims,” wrote Evan Lukaske, a member of the DCCC press staff, the day after the horrific Las Vegas massacre on Oct. 1 that left 58 people dead and more than 800 injured. Now, after the latest high-profile mass shooting, in Parkland, Fla., that sentiment seems not only trite but offensive, as survivors have rightly denounced such knee-jerk responses.

A new report on internal polling about health care by the DCCC exposed a similarly milquetoast approach of advising members to be more responsive to Republican lines of attack on a single-payer system rather than to desires among the Democratic base for single-payer. Indeed, the Democratic Party has a history of letting the right set its agenda and has time and again kowtowed to Republican posturing instead of articulating a clear oppositional vision. As a result, virulently right-wing policies on issues like gun proliferation, health care, immigration, policing, abortion rights, war and militarism have taken root at the federal and state levels on many fronts over the past several years, imperiling the lives of ordinary people.

Even though he was unable to break through the Democratic National Committee’s stranglehold on primary elections and the nomination process, Sanders came close. He was and continues to be the nation’s most popular politician.

Now, internal wrangling within the party between establishment members and their more radical colleagues has risen to the surface once more, echoing the bitter presidential primary fight that took place just a year ago between factions supporting Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Who wins the current fight could determine whether the liberal party successfully remakes the national political landscape in this fall’s midterm elections or remains locked out of power. After failing to wrest the White House from the worst possible presidential candidate in recent history, the Democrats face a make-or-break moment over the next several months.

The two broad factions within the Democratic Party can be viewed as “Republican lite” and “progressive,” with each side contending that its political platform offers the best path to political power. The right-leaning wing of the party has long maintained that in order to win over the majority of American voters it is most practical to espouse centrist or moderate policy positions. That view received a major blow last year when Sanders’ candidacy proved what the progressive wing had been asserting for years: A candidate who wholeheartedly embraced the party’s stated progressive ideals would win plenty of support. Even though he was unable to break through the Democratic National Committee’s stranglehold on primary elections and the nomination process, Sanders came close. He was and continues to be the nation’s most popular politician.

Whatever the Democrats have been doing until now is clearly not good enough, whether measured by electoral victories or popularity. The fact that Donald Trump’s poll numbers have been consistently low ought to spell good news for Democrats. But in polls as recent as late last year, both the 2016 Democratic nominee and the party as a whole appeared to be reviled by a majority of Americans.

Still, the party’s leadership appears determined to remain on track with the same approach that has failed far too often: Sell oneself as the lesser evil compared to Republicans and hope to skate into power with as little adherence to truly progressive values as possible. And, to be fair, special elections held since Trump’s election have offered some cautious optimism, with Democrats winning a large number of state legislative races, the results of which are often seen as good predictors of congressional races immediately following. The DCCC also outpaced its own fundraising records in January. But just as the 2016 presidential election was expected to be a slam-dunk for Clinton, the new political reality of Trump’s presidency is a constant reminder that anything is possible.

To fully embrace the progressivism that the party claims distinguishes it from the GOP, it must give up its addiction to corporate money and aggressive foreign policy.

There are several signs that strong progressive candidates with grass-roots backing are refusing to take a chance that revulsion toward Trump will be enough to propel Democrats to congressional power and have challenged Democratic incumbents from the left. If fundraising is one measure, The Intercept just reported that half a dozen “progressive insurgents” have raised more money than the Democratic Party incumbent candidates in House primary challenges.

In Houston, a Democratic candidate named Laura Moser found herself on the receiving end of a DCCC smear campaign, ostensibly because, of the three Democrats running in the upcoming primary election to challenge a Republican incumbent this November, Moser “skewed a little farther left.” But the DCCC’s tactic appears to have only helped her in both campaign donations and name recognition.

Perhaps the greatest upset came in California last weekend, when the state Democratic Party failed to endorse longtime incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Instead, 54 percent of delegates threw their support behind a far more progressive candidate running against Feinstein—California Senate President Kevin de León. While de León did not get the requisite 60 percent for a formal party endorsement, the strong backing he commanded compared to Feinstein’s 37 percent support is a warning shot to establishment Democrats.

Also at the California Democratic Party Convention, there was a conflict between candidates vying to represent the state’s 45th Congressional District, currently held by Republican Mimi Walters. The Intercept’s David Dayen outlined the sordid details of a battle for endorsement signatures between Democrats who will face off in the upcoming primary race. That clash also represented the split within the party between centrist and progressive forces.

In order to back single-payer health care, Democrats must renounce ties to the insurance industry.

At the heart of Democratic recalcitrance to live up to the party’s ideals is the allegiance that so many members have to the same gods that Republicans worship: corporate America and Wall Street as well as American militarism and foreign policy hawkishness. To fully embrace the progressivism that the party claims distinguishes it from the GOP, it must give up its addiction to corporate money and aggressive foreign policy.

The party cannot have it both ways:

In order to back single-payer health care, Democrats must renounce ties to the insurance industry.

In order to address climate change, Democrats must shun oil and gas companies.

In order to protect undocumented immigrants, Democrats must commit to ending detention centers and harsh immigration enforcement.

In order to stop police killings of unarmed black men, Democrats must hold police accountable.

And in order to truly address the scourge of gun violence, Democrats need to offer more than thoughts and prayers and unabashedly call for policy changes minutes after every massacre until no one else has to die in a mass shooting in America.

It’s that simple.

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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