(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Will Rogers wouldn’t recognize the Democratic Party today, and that should put a smile on Democratic faces.
Rogers would have to find a new quip to describe the performance on Wednesday of the party’s Platform Committee in preparation for the Democratic National Convention next month, in place of his classic putdown: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
He’d be shocked at how well Democrats have coordinated their approach to the 2020 presidential campaign since, really, the South Carolina primary in late February. That was when former Vice President Joe Biden took a clear lead for the nomination, then swiftly established himself as the overwhelming consensus nominee, won endorsements from his vanquished rivals and compromised with his democratic socialist antagonist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, on substantive policy elements to craft a consensus platform.
At least that’s one way of looking at it. It’s not exactly wrong, nor is it wrong to note that Biden is an experienced politician who has consistently demonstrated that he’s skilled at finding the center of his party. Sanders, too, has displayed political skill, having twice shown the ability to cash in the chips he earned in the primaries and caucuses for gains in the party platform.
But I don’t think it’s the most accurate analysis. Because it mistakenly casts the politicians, and not the party, as the chief actors. It wasn’t mainly Biden’s savvy that located a political sweet spot between the Democratic Party’s mainstream and leftist wings. It was the party that positioned Biden. To be clear: That doesn’t mean that the formal national party, the Democratic National Committee, dictates the platform or anything else. Instead, what emerges from the nomination process is the collective decisions of thousands of party actors — politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, party-aligned interest groups and partisan media.
Most pundits and some political scientists who ask how much ability parties have to control nominations focus on whether high-profile endorsements produce nominees. But the deeper question that scholars have grappled with (myself included) is the extent to which parties are in charge of the policies and principles that the candidates represent. If parties set the agenda, then which politician they wind up selecting as the nominee is probably not all that important because that candidate — and his or her presidency — will in large part be selected in order to carry out party priorities. It doesn’t always work that way — nobody would say that President Donald Trump was selected in 2016 by Republican leaders to execute a consensus agenda — but usually it does.
And that’s a pretty good description of what appears to be happening with Democrats in 2020. Biden has repeatedly been called a “moderate” candidate, but in fact he campaigned through the primaries as a mainstream liberal. The actual moderates who explicitly campaigned by appealing to those who wanted a less liberal party, including Governors John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Steve Bullock of Montana, were wiped out early. The energy in the party in the 2018 midterm elections and in the 2020 nomination fight was embodied by candidates like Biden, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg, who basically wanted an updated version of the party as it existed when Barack Obama was president, and those such as Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who found the policies of that era inadequate.
In the heat of a nomination battle, it’s easy for the campaigns and their supporters, as well as party actors who care passionately about various policy proposals, to perceive a huge gulf between policy positions. But the advocates tend to belong to overlapping groups. The harsh reality of what is plausible to achieve narrows some of the gaps, and antipathy towards an incumbent president — especially Trump — makes it relatively easy for factions to renegotiate the terms of the party coalition.
So for example, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith has pointed out, the investment-intensive energy plan Biden is now promoting is largely taken from Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose campaign as the climate candidate never went anywhere but seems to have established the blueprint of aggressive action on global warming, anyway. Similarly, Biden's economic plan owes plenty to Warren. Where Democrats remain divided — as with the government’s role in health care — it still was possible for those who want a single-payer system to settle for a much more robust public option than Biden had originally campaigned on.
For the coming general election campaign, it’s not hard to find compromises on some issues and to paper over the differences on others. Similarly, it seems during the nomination battle that what’s important is which candidate wins. But had Sanders won, the same process would have taken place, with his representatives reaching compromises with mainstream liberals. Or, perhaps, the threat that Sanders would refuse such a process is a large part of why he was unable to expand his support beyond his faction of the party, and therefore why he’s not the one organizing the platform process.
The point is that to the extent that the party collectively makes decisions, what we need to understand is the party, not the individual politicians involved, no matter how much it appears that they are the main actors. A good example outside of the campaign context would be Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage in 2012 after running as an opponent of marriage equality four years earlier. In one sense, we can look at it as a story about Obama, and about Biden, who pushed Obama by making his own switch on the issue public. But if we step back, it’s clear that the Democratic Party collectively changed on the issue between 2008 and 2012, and Obama would have been out of step with the bulk of the party if he hadn’t made the same change. To understand why Obama changed, we need to understand the Democratic Party, not its candidate.
Similarly, the compromises that have emerged on the 2020 platform really are about where the party is, not about Biden and Sanders. And the ability to reach agreements on the platform is a sign of the party’s good health, and suggests that the party — while probably more liberal than it has ever been before — is still more pragmatic than ideological.
Republicans, by contrast, have proven unable to formulate policy positions and priorities at all, which was one of the things that made them vulnerable to takeover by a reality television star who had no knowledge of, or long-term commitment to, the party's preferences — or any interest in mastering governing. The Democrats’ smooth glide to a nominee and a platform, whether its specific policy positions are good or bad, is probably a positive indication of the party’s ability to govern.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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