Analysis: Win or lose tomorrow, the Democrats face a serious battle over identity

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders embrace during a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday.
(Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty Images)

The roaring crowds and displays of Democratic unity around Hillary Clinton as the campaign ends have obscured a bumpier reality: Whatever happens Tuesday, Democrats face a struggle to define themselves.

The divisions in the party may be less dramatic than the parallel fight among Republicans, but Democrats have schisms both ideological and generational.

That suggests a dour potential for Clinton even as she moves closer toward victory in Tuesday’s election: Her presidency could be caught between Republicans who will have less reason than ever to cooperate and a corps of Democrats reluctant to compromise, both sides playing to opposite bases.


To win the party’s nomination, Clinton had to move to the left to placate Democrats attracted to her challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Their differences have been papered over in the general election, and most of his supporters have fallen in line, but Clinton’s intentions remain suspect to many on the party’s left.

Sanders has made clear that he will not hesitate to take on a President Clinton, a posture in which he may have company from another Clinton campaign stalwart, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Republicans already have talked of blocking potential Clinton initiatives, with several GOP senators going so far as to suggest they might try to prevent any Supreme Court confirmations for the entirety of the next four-year presidential term.

That sort of dilemma for the new president would be familiar historically: Presidents who succeed an incumbent of their own party repeatedly have come to grief as a result of similar crossfires. George H.W. Bush, Harry Truman and William Howard Taft all provide examples.

The successor president inherits all of the issues that the predecessor couldn’t resolve and typically faces pressure from within the party to go further than ever in pursuit of its demands. Ambition that has been pent up for years inevitably seeks an outlet to shift the party’s direction.

In the case of Democrats, they already this year have demonstrated increasingly leftward ideological views. That’s especially true among young voters, who are less pragmatic than their elders, apparently more favorable toward activist government and inclined to see more centrist politicians like Clinton as lacking principle.

The generational shift is not only among voters but among the party’s leaders. Vice President Joe Biden and Senate leader Harry Reid are retiring, and other leaders are, if still powerful, aging. Most of them, like Clinton, came of age when Democrats were failing in big-ticket races and found that compromise gave them a bigger audience.

“Clinton herself represents a holdover from a prior generation of Democratic leaders,” Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan said. By running for president, “she prevented a new generation from emerging after Obama. At some point, the party has to turn the page and start to define what a post-Clinton, post-Obama era looks like. It’s not clear what that is.”

The coming redefinition echoes battles in the 1980s between establishment Democrats and younger, more liberal ones. A succession of presidential losses forced a reckoning that in 1992 led to a compromise of sorts: the nomination and eventual election of a younger but more moderate Democrat, Bill Clinton, who pushed the party to the center.

That move secured two terms for him. But it ushered in a period of governing that backfired on his wife in her current campaign. Sanders bludgeoned Clinton during the primaries with two measures pushed in the 1990s — changes that toughened the criminal justice system and limited welfare — which in today’s Democratic environment seem wrongheaded to many voters.

Clinton also had difficulty in the primaries from another holdover of that era — her insistence that her proposals hew to the budget.

Her worry over deficits prompted Clinton to initially sign on to a narrower college tuition proposal than Sanders had. The comparison made her seem less enthusiastic about that issue, which ranked high among the concerns of Sanders’ youthful and liberal followers.

Likewise, she declined in the primaries to sign on to Sanders’ call for a $15 minimum wage nationwide, preferring to advocate a smaller national increase with the rest of the level left to the states.

Clinton has since altered many of her plans to move closer to Sanders and his supporters. She now boasts at events that her college tuition program was crafted by the two of them.

But doubts about her convictions die hard, as was evident Saturday when a student introducing Sanders at a pro-Clinton campaign event in Iowa took the opportunity to blister her.

The student, identified by the Iowa State Daily as Kaleb Vanfosson, the former president of the Students for Bernie club, told the audience that Trump was a “part-time reality TV show star and full-time bigot” who didn’t care about student debt.

“Unfortunately Hillary doesn’t really care about this issue either,” he then added. “The only thing she cares about is pleasing her donors, the billionaires.”

Soon, he was escorted offstage.

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Sanders did not second that criticism, but neither has he vowed to get along with his former opponent. In an interview last month with the Washington Post, he said he would pressure Clinton not to appoint Wall Street figures to the Treasury Department and other positions to which both parties routinely have named them.

“I will be vigorously in opposition, and I will make that very clear,” he said.

Clinton traveled to Cleveland on Sunday for an appearance with Cavaliers star LeBron James, an effort to pull herself over the finish line in contested Ohio with a stronger turnout among those attracted by his celebrity presence. While there, she promised an aggressive push for the policies that more liberal elements of her party support.

In an echo of Sanders, she vowed to force the wealthy and corporations to “pay their fair share” — sparing most Americans a tax increase — and said she would push members of Congress to take a public stand in favor of the middle class.

“I’m going to say, ‘Whose side are you on, Mr. or Madam Congressman?’” she said. “Are you supporting the five people in your district who will have their taxes raised, or are you supporting the 500,000” who won’t?

If Clinton’s immediate problem is corralling members of Congress, the longer-term issue for Democrats is young voters, who have far less attachment to the party than their forebears.

A 2015 Pew Research study found that among those ages 35 and younger, 41% identified as independents. Only 35% called themselves Democrats, and another 22% Republicans.

Democrats have benefited to this point because those independent-minded voters have recoiled from the conservative social policies of the Republican Party. They support abortion rights and gay rights, among the issues that distinguish them from Republicans.

But to win, Democrats require coalitions, and the members of theirs are increasingly advocating different things.

The college-educated whites who live in the suburbs and have given Clinton’s campaign a lift at important points want moderation; the blue-collar voters who have leaned toward Trump this year want an economic revival of old-school jobs; and the youthful want to look forward on issues such as climate change and a technology-driven economy.

Placating all of them will test Clinton, if she — as she always puts it — is fortunate enough to be elected.

Tuesday’s results will inevitably affect the timing of Democratic definition. If Clinton wins and Republicans, as they have already promised, bury her in investigations, Democratic unity could soar. But there will not be much time before the 2018 off-year races in which Democrats will probably suffer losses, which could reopen public discussion.

And if she loses Tuesday, the conversation begins Wednesday morning.

Twitter: @cathleendecker


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