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Pyrrhic Party: The Democratic Establishment’s War on Progressives

Democrats have a problem the Republicans don’t. The pursuit of big money drives establishment Democrats to adopt positions — and to nurture a political culture — that prevents them from winning their natural constituencies.

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By supporting corporate-friendly candidates and policies, Congressional Democratic leaders are be moving closer and closer toward open warfare with their party’s base.

There is a real need to raise money, of course. But the party’s leaders have chosen to raise and spend money in ways that conflict with voters and render it all but ineffective as a force for much-needed change.

Under the best-case scenario, the party’s establishment is heading toward a Pyrrhic victory.  And other, grimmer scenarios are possible.

Democrat vs. Democrat

majority of Democratic voters, led by black, brown, and female Democrats, told pollsters in a recent study that they supported “movements within the Democratic Party to take it even further to the left and oppose the current Democratic leaders.”  A new study by Data For Progress shows that “the Democratic Party’s base has moved left” and that voters overall “are ready for unabashed progressive politicians.”

And yet, as if determined to block their own party’s progress, House Democratic operatives have been attacking progressive candidates in public and working to undermine them in private.

The party’s antipathy for progressive candidates and ideas seems to grow more conspicuous with each passing day. The party’s penchant for “centrist,” corporate-friendly candidates has long been the subject of Washington cocktail-hour talk, but a series of news reports has placed it squarely in the public eye.

First, there was the smear attack against Laura Moser, who is running in a Texas congressional primary. In language worthy of the cheapest Republican hit job, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) called Moser a “Washington insider” and accused her of disliking life in Texas. (Moser had expressed antipathy for her home town, not the state, saying “that (was) a story for another day.”) A DCCC spokesperson called Moser “unqualified” and doubled down on the deception with a comment about “Laura Moser’s outright disgust for life in Texas.”

Moser responded with an attack on “party bosses” in “smoke filled rooms” who are “trying to tell Texas what to do,” and was rewarded with a fundraising surge that almost certainly helped her win a spot in her district’s upcoming runoff election.

Counting Crow

More recently, The Intercept published the contents of a secretly-recorded tape in which Steny Hoyer, the second-highest ranking House Democrat, openly acknowledges that the party was intervening in a Colorado primary on behalf of corporate lawyer Jason Crow. In the tape, Hoyer repeatedly asks Crow opponent Levi Tillemann to leave the race.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch points out, the party’s infrastructure is working against elements of the very anti-Trump resistance that represents its greatest hope for victory. Nevertheless, Hoyer defends the practice of intervening in local Democratic primaries.

“Staying out of primaries sounds small-D democratic, very intellectual, and very interesting,” said Hoyer, who claimed the result would be that “somebody wins in the primary who can’t possibly win in the general.”

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi defended Hoyer after the Tillemann tape became public, calling it “a conversation about the realities of life.”

“What’s important in all of this is that one in five children in America lives in poverty goes to sleep hungry,” said Pelosi. “That’s what makes this election so urgent, for our children. So if the reality is that some candidates can get into the general [more] than others, then that’s a clear-eyes conversation.”

Money for Nothing

Hoyer’s contemptuous dismissal of democratic governance as “intellectual” and “interesting,” and Pelosi’s defense of his actions, obscure a “reality of life” that is nearly as important as the principle that primary voters should choose their own candidates: The Democratic establishment has been notoriously terrible at picking winners.

A truly clear-eyed assessment of the Democratic Party’s recent record would show that, under its current leaders, the party lost both houses of Congress and roughly 1,000 seats in state legislatures during the Obama years. The fact that the electoral tide seems to have shifted this year says little about their leadership. The shift is largely due to the party base’s understandable horror at Trump’s leadership.

In a 2013 PowerPoint slide, the DCCC famously told freshmen Democrats in Congress that they should plan on spending four hours a day raising money for their re-election campaigns.

The party is using its candidates to feed an infrastructure of consultants that reinforce the need to raise copious amounts of cash. In a leaked Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the DCCC and its candidates, the party organization insists on overseeing budgets and campaign finance plans. The MOU also requires candidates to reserve “at least 75 percent of funds raised for paid communications.”

This enriches a certain type of Democratic consultant. It also precludes candidates from embracing the ground-based, movement-aligned strategies that could help increase voter turnout and win races previously thought unwinnable. It prevents the development of lower-cost alternatives to the kinds of campaigns that force politicians to spend hours every day raising money.

Austerity Lite

Perhaps not coincidentally, the party’s leaders have taken rhetorical postures and adopted policy positions that conflict with voters’ more progressive instincts. Hoyer supported the Iraq war and was deeply critical of the Iran nuclear treaty, a major greatest foreign policy achievement for the Obama Administration. Domestically, he is a fellow advocate for austerity who once insisted that benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare should remain “on the table” in negotiations with Republicans.

Pelosi, while progressive-leaning on many issues, has been a strong proponent of “pay as you go” (or “paygo”) rules that would require Congress to find funds for all new initiatives, either from taxes or cuts to existing programs. While Pelosi describes the idea as “common sense,” it is an economically unnecessary measure that makes it more difficult to enact progressive programs. (Economist Stephanie Kelton has written extensively on the topic. Kelton discussed deficit economics in a recent interview with me, which can be seen here.)

Pelosi recently eulogized billionaire Peter G. Peterson, a leading voice for austerity economicsand Social Security cuts, and for the deficit-fixated policies that have hamstrung progressives for decades. The desire to remember a friend is, of course, understandable. But Pelosi went further, saying of Peterson:

His prophetic voice on the importance of fiscal sustainability brought together generations of policy makers no matter their political background to find common ground and effect solutions … His legacy will endure in many ways but especially for his work at the Peterson Foundation which will continue to America’s fiscal and economic challenges now under the leadership of his son, Michael.

Words like these send a discouraging message to the progressive voters that comprise the bulk of the Democratic base. They suggest that the Democrats will remain the party of “austerity lite,” favoring budget cuts over bold programs to rebuild the economy along Rooseveltian and Western European lines.

Damned if They Do

On one level, at least, it’s possible to feel some sympathy for their position (except, perhaps, for the hypocrisy.) Democratic leaders feel they need big money to win races, a belief that has been borne out by experience. That belief has been reinforced by studies like this one, from political scientists Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgenson, and Jie Chen, on the dominant role money plays in electoral outcomes.

But the Democrats have a problem the Republicans don’t. The pursuit of big money drives establishment Democrats to adopt positions — and to nurture a political culture — that prevents them from winning their natural constituencies.

Republicans can run on a pro-corporate, pro-wealth agenda without much difficulty. But Democrats need to win white, black, brown, and young Americans who are lower-income and working-class, and must drum up enough enthusiasm to bring them to the polls on a regular basis. That’s hard to do with an agenda that is, in effect, a “kinder, gentler” variation on the Republicans’ view of government as a hamstrung, and sometimes nefarious, external force in American life.

It’s true that Democrats have a good chance of winning back the House year. But then what? Are they going to govern as they have governed in the past – by offering only limited possibilities in the present and low expectations for the future? If they do, they will lose again once voter disaffection sets in.

The Way Out

Fortunately, there’s a way out. As Thomas Ferguson told us in a recent, in-depth interview, the Sanders campaign showed Democrats how they can win without big-money donors. That campaign became a financial powerhouse by receiving millions of small-dollar contributions from a broad base of supporters.

It won’t be easy. The dynamics of congressional fundraising are very different than those of presidential races. An alternative model for activist, driven small-dollar congressional campaigns has yet to be perfected. But it can be done, and groups like Our Revolution are working on it.

Moreover, Democrats have no choice. They can’t win and hold power with the policies and political practices of the past.

Laura Moser got a boost when the DCCC attacked her. The party establishment’s reputation is so poor these days that one candidate was delighted when the DCCC endorsed… his opponent!

When the party machinery becomes a liability among its own voters, it is time for the party to change.