The Democrats’ strategy conundrum: a ‘movement’ or a coalition?

by Bill Schneider

The division in the Democratic Party today isn’t so much about ideology. It’s more about strategy: Should the party be a coalition or a movement?

What’s the difference? A coalition brings together voters with diverse interests who agree on one thing: President Donald Trump has to go. There’s just one test: “If you support the party’s candidate — for whatever reason — you’re one of us. No further questions.”

Supporters of a movement are expected to agree on everything. For the conservative movement, that means the entire conservative agenda, from taxes to abortion to immigration to climate change. Disagree on anything, and you can be declared a heretic and expelled from the movement.

The Democratic coalition can include liberals who despise Trump’s policies. It can include ordinary voters who are offended by Trump’s behavior. It can include conservatives who believe Trump has betrayed the conservative cause. It can include voters of all persuasions who object to Trump’s governing by deliberately dividing the country.

Conservatives won control of the GOP in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. An enforcement mechanism emerged in 2010 with the Tea Party; the Tea Party threatened any elected GOP official who strayed from conservative orthodoxy with a Republican primary opponent. Influential figures like Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were brought down by Tea Party activists for insufficient loyalty to the conservative cause.

Since 2016, the conservative movement has been displaced by the Trump movement. President Trump now exerts total control over the Republican Party, even though his policies are not always in line with the conservative cause, particularly his isolationist foreign policy. President Trump brutally punishes any dissent or criticism from fellow Republicans by denouncing it, usually by tweet, as personal disloyalty. He has his own private army — his “base” — to enforce discipline in the party.

The modern progressive movement emerged with the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war causes. Both issues split the Democratic Party wide open. Conservative Democrats — mostly southern whites and northern working-class whites (once called “Archie Bunker” voters) — left the Democratic Party after the party establishment (Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys, Hubert Humphrey) embraced civil rights. Liberal Democrats went into revolt over the party establishment’s support for the war in Vietnam. The division that destroyed the old Democratic majority wasn’t left versus right. It was the left and the right against the center.

The current Democratic primary campaign for president, with its focus on issues like a wealth tax and a Green New Deal, often sounds esoteric and irrelevant to voters. One candidate, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on social media and television ads to remind voters of what the election is really about. One Bloomberg ad features a Michigan voter saying, “All this effort and all this money and none of it goes to help the one election that really matters” – meaning the referendum on Donald Trump.

Right now, about 55 percent of voters have an unfavorable personal opinion of the president. What Democrats have to do is hold the anti-Trump coalition together. The message of the Bloomberg ads is: If you don’t like Trump for any reason — personal, ideological, policy-related — you’re one of us. No further questions.

What the ads have not yet done is convince people that Michael Bloomberg is the candidate to do it. Bloomberg is still an unfamiliar and even suspect figure to many Democrats — particularly to progressives who resent Bloomberg’s wealth. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said, “Billionaires should not exist.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in Iowa, “Some people have figured out it’d be a lot cheaper to spend a few hundred mil just buying the presidency instead of paying the two-cent [per dollar] wealth tax.”

Bloomberg’s marquee cause is gun control. It’s an issue that unites Democrats, including progressives, and draws considerable support from independents and Republicans. The gun issue defines Bloomberg as a candidate of boldness, not caution.

Right now, however, the Democrat best positioned to lead the anti-Trump coalition is not Bloomberg but former vice president Joe Biden. While Biden‘s support has slipped as more Democrats have entered the race, he remains at the top of the polls. What has kept Biden on top is not just familiarity; it’s also electability. Biden is seen by many Democrats as the candidate most likely to build and sustain an anti-Trump coalition — one that includes disaffected Republicans as well as progressive Democrats.

Trump governs by dividing; he rallies his base and denounces all who do not believe in him. Biden’s strategy is completely different. He told a reporter, “I think Republican voters have an interest in finding common ground. Wherever I go, there’s an enormous number of independents and Republicans who know and think we have to find common ground.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought together a coalition of groups that had one thing in common: They all wanted something from the federal government. The Roosevelt coalition included working-class voters, first- and second-generation immigrants, African Americans, Jews, southern whites, labor unionists, seniors and farmers. They disagreed on many things — especially race — but they all supported FDR’s New Deal.

In 1980, a new coalition emerged — the Reagan coalition. Ronald Reagan brought together diverse interests that also had one thing in common: They all had a grievance with the federal government. It included suburban taxpayers, business interests, white backlash-voters, religious conservatives, gun owners, anti-communist intellectuals and men. They were hostile to the federal government for different reasons — taxes, regulations, activist federal judges, civil rights laws, limits on risk-taking, gun restrictions. They all agreed with Reagan when he said at his first inaugural, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

Whether the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg or another contender, the winning Democratic message for 2020 has to be, “If you want to bring down Donald Trump and destroy Trumpism, you’re one of us. No further questions.” That’s how a coalition is built.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

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