Democrats’ Shutdown Collapse Highlights Intra-Party Problems

Politico’s Bill Scher put it best: “Democrats are living their own version of Groundhog Day. Every day, they wake up and realize they are still in the 2016 presidential primary.”

More than a year after the 2016 elections the party is still facing an internal struggle between its left-leaning faction, with Sen. Bernie Sanders as its figurehead, and the more moderate forces, typified by…hmm…surely there’s someone with a modicum of name recognition? Nope. Nothing is coming to mind.

Fortunately for Democrats, it hasn’t appeared all that difficult to stand together over the last several months. They’ve coalesced around a strategy of resisting President Trump and seemingly have agreed on a unifying #resistance hashtag. But the way Democrats handled the government shutdown highlighted the deep tensions that continue to exist between the party activists, who demand fealty to their vision of progressivism, and the politicos, who realize that if Democrats want any chance at a Senate majority they must make some concessions.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer essentially conceded the shutdown fight, agreeing after three days to reopen the government without gaining any meaningful concessions other than a pledge to consider a bipartisan DACA fix before the continuing resolutions runs out. Liberal groups could not hide their disdain.

“It’s Schumer’s job to lead and keep his caucus together to fight for progressive values, and he didn’t do it,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the activist group Indivisible.

“Today’s cave by some Senate Democrats was not only a stunning display of moral and political cowardice, it was a strategically incoherent move that demonstrates precisely why so many believe the Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America.

“What’s clear from today’s joke deal is that the grass-roots movement demanding unity and courage has a lot of work to do to ensure that the whole Democratic Caucus is ready to fight when the time comes,” Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org, said in an interview.

Perhaps most worrisome for Democrats are the threats to to weed out the “weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats.”

Indivisible, an activist group made powerful by the #resistance movement, warned that “there need to be repercussions for selling out Dreamers and broadly selling out progressive policy priorities like this.” Other groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, has explicitly said that they were working with like-minded groups to begin “actively exploring places to intervene in primary elections.”

Undoubtedly, the first places they’ll look are the seats of the centrist Democrats who gave a laudatory, back-slapping press conference after the vote to congratulate themselves on their work to keep the government open.

“If you want results, you have to compromise, and if you’re unwilling to compromise, you won’t get results,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat of North Dakota, and one of the 10 Democrat members of the so-called “Common Sense” caucus who negotiated with Republicans to reopen the government. “You maybe get a political issue, but you won’t get results. And I didn’t come here to do politics.”

Perhaps, or as is more likely, her willingness to fold without any significant concessions indicates that she’s putting her political survival well before party or principle. There are 10 Democrats running for re-election this fall in states that Trump won in 2016, five of which are in states that the president won by double digits. Voters in those states aren’t looking at this as a liberal litmus test, nor do they really care whether their vote tips the balance of power in the Senate. They just want someone who represents their conservative-leaning values, which is an increasingly more difficult thing for Democrats to do given the party’s leftward shift.

And that’s the dynamic that teased out by this vote. Do Democrats want to prioritize the moderate needs of the 10 and be hamstrung on some of their policy goals? Or do they risk sacrificing their moderate members, or even proactively primary them, in an effort to push for party purity. Some on the left aren’t shy about their answer.

“Today’s cave by Senate Democrats—led by weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats—is why people don’t believe the Democratic Party stands for anything,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Stephanie Taylor said in a statement. “These weak Democrats hurt the party brand for everyone and make it harder to elect Democrats everywhere in 2018.”