Several of the Democratic presidential candidates have invoked party unity in the wake of the New Hampshire primary, but the party is a long way from being united. Internal squabbling is already running rampant and risks deterring or even disgusting general election voters over the next few months. How can the candidates fight what promises to be a fluid and closely fought race and still keep their eyes on the main prize, which is defeating Donald Trump?
A lesson from the not-so-distant past may be instructive. In the wake of a long and hotly fought primary season in 2008, the Obama campaign instructed each of its divisions to hire former members of Hillary Clinton’s team. Naturally, there was pushback. The young and cocky digital team, of which I was a part, tried to tell our campaign manager, David Plouffe, that it was a terrible idea because there was nothing Clinton’s clearly inferior digital team could teach us.
But Plouffe was militant. Each department is taking two staffers, he said. Period.
It was awkward when the new staffers arrived, but after a few barbs and a few beers, we moved forward as a team. And the Democrats took the White House in a momentous victory.
There was no such push for unity in 2016. Reasonable people can disagree whether that was a cause or a symptom of the bad blood between the Hilary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) camps. But either way, we had a far more fractured party when we went down to unexpected defeat against Trump that November.
Unfortunately, this time around, I see a similar absence of leadership within the Democratic National Committee. Nobody is setting ground rules or guard rails for keeping the party together in the midst of a tough primary battle. And to judge by just a few recent examples – Joe Biden’s singularly uncharitable jab at former Mayor Pete Buttigieg on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, or Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) encouraging Sanders supporters to boo his rivals at a rally and getting praised for it after – the campaigns are jumping any reasonable idea of guard rails already.
The party’s job is to help knit the grassroots movement represented by the different campaigns into a coherent coalition. Since nearly four in ten Americans are now registered as independents, that coalition can’t rely on the support of registered Democrats alone. We need to be transparent and welcoming and focused on adding to our support base, not alienating and dividing the forces we have.
This includes Hillary Clinton, who instead of relitigating the primary battle from four years ago, could be helping the efforts to register new voters while inspiring her previous supporters to focus on Trump.
The party leadership has a role to play, too. If the Democrats want to show voters that they are the party of inclusivity and transparency, they can’t change the rules to allow a new candidate – former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – to join the debate stage after several candidates have dropped out. It’s not the DNC’s job to play favorites, not in a Democratic primary system that invites voters to make up their minds on their own.
The candidates, meanwhile, need to call on their supporters and any PACs or independent expenditure groups acting on their behalf to stop spending scarce resources attacking other primary candidates. This means that the Sanders campaign needs to put an end to the sort of chants heard on election night in New Hampshire (“Wall Street Pete!”) and Biden needs to think of the party, not his only increasingly narrower path to the nomination, before he cuts another negative ad. He should have paid closer attention to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer who, in her rebuttal to the State of the Union, celebrated Democrats all over the country for their ability to come together to “fix potholes,” and solve their local problems.
Unfortunately, many Democratic party insiders do not appear to be interested in building the biggest possible coalition to win in November, and I don’t understand why. Shouldn’t we worry about history repeating itself? Shouldn’t we be concerned that no primary candidate is more than a few points ahead of Trump in head-to-head polls? Haven’t we learned that these national polls always include fine print margins of error? Shouldn’t we be concerned about Trump reaping the benefit of a stock market that continues to boom and employment numbers that keep going up? Are we really prepared for dirty campaigning and yet more foreign interference? Democrats should not take a single vote for granted — we may end up needing them all.
Not taking votes for granted means courting supporters of candidates who have dropped out, not tweeting snarkily at them. Remember, Marianne Williamson is a best-selling author with 2.7 million Twitter followers, 497,000 Instagram followers and speaks to a non-traditional audience. The same principle holds for Andrew Yang. How are state parties and local organizations reaching out to these new leaders and keeping their activists engaged?
Perhaps we should think of the primary field like a multi-party parliament in Europe in which the various factions get to keep their identities but are still able to form a winning coalition. Emmanuel Macron forged just such a coalition in France a few years ago, uniting the left, the center-left and moderate-right to defeat the extremist National Front. People didn’t love all aspects of Macron or his politics. But most could get behind the united “En Marche” (roughly translates to Forward!) movement’s simple mission: That defeating Marine Le Pen of the National Front trumped – forgive the word – all other political considerations.
We need to muster a similar spirit here. The different wings of the Democratic Party are not going to love everything about each other. But still, we need to form a disciplined and united opposition movement to Trump and all that he stands for, because the price of failing to do so is unimaginably high. I hope we start sooner than later.
By Scott Goodstein