Domestic Affairs

A House Divided

In any other year, anyone would expect the whole Democratic Party to be jubilant. The party defeated an opposing incumbent president, the first time such an event has occurred in three decades. What’s more, this president was Donald Trump, a man who many Democrats found either personally repugnant or a threat to American democracy, if not both simultaneously. 

However, the situation clearly darkens for Democrats beyond the presidential race. Results in the House and Senate have wildly underperformed expectations, and the resulting shock has set antagonistic party members against each other. The Democratic response in the wake of the election has not been a celebration, but a recrimination.

After this year’s furor about selecting judges, Democrats aimed to realize the very clear possibility of taking the Senate. Senate Republicans were forced to defend 24 seats, seven of which were considered toss-ups by Election Day. In addition to the potential Biden coattails created by the election, liberal candidates had an outstanding financial edge in their matchups. Every Democratic candidate in a close race had odds, funds, and momentum on their side — yet the party fell far short of victory. As of when this was written, the Democrats had only flipped two Republican held seats: one in the sapphire blue state of Colorado and the other being Mark Kelly’s defeat of Martha McSally (who has now lost elections for both Arizona Senate seats). Republican senators held on in close races, and absolutely blew out cash rich candidates like Jamie Harrison in red-leaning states.

If Republicans take either of the runoff races in Georgia, as is likely to occur, Democrats will be a minority in the Senate. It would be the first time that a new president has not been able to have a friendly majority in the chamber since George H. W. Bush’s election in 1988. Biden is likely to begin his term without an actionable “100-day agenda,” lacking easy bureau replacements or quick judge appointments. What little Biden will be able to do will need to pass through Mitch McConnell, or a Susan Collins-esque Republican moderate. Neither situation is a recipe for base pleasing progressive policies.

Though the Democratic failures in the Senate are damaging to the prospects of a Biden presidency, their underwhelming performance in the House will have far larger ramifications for the ideological and political future of the party. In an election where the Democrats were supposed to gain a net of anywhere between five and 18 seats, they actually lost representatives, giving up much of the ground that they gained in the “blue wave” of 2018. Though the exact number is uncertain, Republicans are currently at a net gain of nine seats in the House. Their leads in Staten Island and California are guaranteed to gain them a few more. Meanwhile, in Texas, Democrats had 10 seats they believed they could turn over. They flipped a total of zero in the state. Moving nationally, the party won a paltry three seats out of the 47 in total that they had targeted to flip.  

At first, this result might seem less problematic than the Democratic failure in the Senate. After all, though the party lost ground, it will still hold the gavel going into 2021. However, the issue is not one of legislative control, but one of ideological standards and party cohesion. The party has so far avoided outright partisan schisms, despite the disagreements concerning the 2016 primaries, the nomination of Nancy Pelosi to House Speaker in 2018, or the second round of progressive candidates in 2020. However, the progressive-moderate rift created within the party by those challenges has never healed. Instead of reaching a consensus, the two sides have spent the last few years simply assembled into a united front focused on defeating Trump. Seen in this light, Biden’s victory is a victory for the Democratic Party, but the party is now lacking the glue that held it together for the past few years. The fallout from the lackluster results in the House has put Democratic leadership, as well as the party in general, in a precarious position.

The post-election Democratic House caucus call, as reported by the Washington Post, very succinctly highlights the current conflict within the party. Multiple moderates, who seemed absolutely shell-shocked by their razor thin victories and defeats, denounced the vulnerable positions that progressive rhetoric on police and socialism had put them in. Off-call, moderates have begun jockeying for a replacement of Nancy Pelosi, who they believe has betrayed them to satisfy the party’s activist wing. 

Progressives, for their part, have responded in kind, accusing moderates of being incompetent when it came to campaigning. Flushed with energy from the Trump presidency, the party’s left is also refusing to back down from its positions. In a Financial Times article, the Justice Democrats’ communication director issued a veiled but public threat that the party’s “divides” would expand if it tried to tack towards the center. Ultimately, though the Senate elections were bad news for Democrats, the poor performance in the House has motivated them to find someone to blame, which is far worse. Mutual accusations are not good for the health of any team, especially a tenuously assembled political party.

As the new Congress begins, the Democratic party faces a dangerous crossroads. The party must be moderate to some extent, both to pass bills through a Republican Senate and to avoid energizing Republican candidates. After all, the Democrats are likely to face an uphill road in 2022, especially with Democratic losses in state Houses creating harder districts across the country. A House Democratic majority that is unable to moderate itself risks kneecapping Biden’s ability to pass anything and endangering its own survival in elections to come.

However, Democratic leadership cannot ignore their left flank either. The progressive side of the party is the base, and it will always have an outsize say. It is where the cash and the activist energy is. Most importantly, the progressive wing of the party is massive in a purely numbers sense. The Progressive Caucus contains at least one-third of Democratic representatives — a staggering 95 members of the current Congress. To put that in perspective, the Freedom Caucus was only one-seventh of the Republican House during the Obama years, but it still forced out a House Speaker, primaried a House Majority Leader, and shut down the government for a few months. If the Democrats anger their sizeable progressive base, the sniping within the party could turn into protracted civil war, which would not bode well for the president-elect, Democratic leadership, or even progressives hopeful of passing their agenda.

The 2020 election has been a victory for Democrats. However, the party’s embattled leadership faces not only a likely Republican Senate but also the rising threat of an ideological breakdown within the House. Only time will tell what the future holds for the Democratic Party, but it’s likely to be a rocky two years in power for the new blue government.

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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