July 16, 2018
Here's a word I never thought anyone would use to describe Senator Dianne Feinstein: "moderate." But that's the political twilight zone Democrats find themselves in, now that 28-year-old socialists are heaving the party Left. In California, where the oldest member of the U.S. Senate couldn't even win her party's endorsement, people are starting to wonder: could this gamble cost Democrats the midterms?
For Feinstein, the party's decision to back Kevin de León was even more remarkable this time around, since she trounced him by more than 30 percent in last month's primaries. Even so, California Democrats announced over the weekend that they were sticking with their guy, insisting that the five-term Feinstein was too much of a "centrist." That's news to most of us, who've never mistaken anti-gun, pro-abortion, anti-family orthodoxy as anything remotely resembling conservatism. This is, as one California political scientist point out, "the strongest signal yet of just how far to the left California's Democratic activists have moved, how emboldened they are..." But, as he and others caution, just because the state party is endorsing this over-the-top extremism doesn't mean American voters are.
"It's only a signal about the party's most activist core," said the University of California's Thad Kousser, "not a sign that everyday voters are choosing a pure progressive over a pragmatist." Already, the party's candidates in other areas are panicking. They see this abandonment of Feinstein as a warning: move Left or move out. Some Democratic House candidates fired off a letter to the California state party, pointing out the devastating ripple effect of their over-the-top extremism. "A divisive party endorsement for U.S. Senate would hurt all down-ballot candidates and our ability to turn out Democrats we desperately need to vote in November," they caution.
That's because de León isn't your garden-variety progressive. This is a candidate, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who would out-radicalize Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with his campaign to impeach Trump, socialize health care, and open the borders. And while his agenda might attract big party donors, it's bound to cause a huge split with heartland Democrats who are begging the DNC to get back to basics. When your own party argues you're "lazy," "out of touch with mainstream America," and relying on "too much identity politics" where "winners and losers are picked by their labels" -- you're in trouble.
But that's the sort of desperation President Trump's success has created for Democrats. It's sort of a "derangement syndrome," John Fund writes, "pushing many [Democrats] into positions that may play well with their base but that will be problematic if they become associated with the party in general elections. Socialized medicine, abolishing ICE, identity politics, political correctness, and sky-high tax rates may quicken the pulse of those who see themselves leading the class struggle."
Even the more liberal members of the Senate worry where decisions like California's might lead. This "rift in the nation's party's direction," Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) warns, carries with it some significant risks. The party, he urged, needs to stress "pragmatic ideas," not "pie-in-the-sky" policies that "might sound great in a tweet, like free college and free health care" (a jab at Ocasio-Cortez's unrealistic promises). Like a lot of people, he wonders if the Democrats are betting the midterms on a platform light years to the Left of most Americans.
The latest numbers from Brookings would certainly suggest they are. Despite the rise of progressive House candidates (280 this year compared to 97 in 2016), the Establishment is still winning when it counts. "Of course many of the progressive non-incumbents are first-time candidates," the group explains, "inspired by Bernie Sanders and turned off by Donald Trump. If they stay in politics many of them may do better in future races. But for now their record is... not great." The more important takeaway for Republicans is this: "Progressive Democrats may not be winning a civil war inside the party. But, if and when Democrats have a chance at power again, progressives will have moved them on some pretty big issues."
If a woman who's taken a blowtorch to the First and Second Amendments, declared Christians unfit for public office, and supported partial-birth abortion isn't liberal enough for the Democratic Party, then it's a brave new world indeed. Meanwhile, if conservatives want to hang on to their majority, the solution is obvious: be more intentional than ever about highlighting the Grand Canyon-sized gaps in the two parties' values. In a country that rejected the leftward lurch of Obama, it's the clearest path to victory.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.