Beyond Trump, Democrats are bitterly divided

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks in New York.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks in New York. AP

Democrats on Capitol Hill are unified in opposition to President Donald Trump, fighting against his Cabinet picks, Supreme Court nominee and, last week, his health care bill.

But increasingly, the question is whether Democrats can show that same kind of unity outside of Washington. Lately, that hasn't been the case.

In a sign of a party deeply divided over everything except all-out opposition to Trump, Democrats in recent weeks have engaged in one fight after the next that shows just how raw the wounds of the 2016 battle between moderates and progressives remain.

Since April, Democratic leaders and liberal advocates have quarreled over Bernie Sanders’s willingness to support abortion-rights foes, fought over their new Democratic National Committee chairman’s proclamation that all Democrats must be "pro-choice," and argued over the merits of investing big money in longshot special election House races.

Even former President Barack Obama sparked a fierce debate by accepting a $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street firm – money critics say betrayed his legacy and weakened the party.

These kinds of fights are normal after a stunning electoral defeat, Democrats say, and even healthy. But for a party uncertain about where to go next, these arguments are not likely to cease soon, and if left unresolved, they could threaten the party’s ability to win back seats in the 2018 midterm election or the White House in 2020.

"The debates and issues are real -- Women's rights are fundamental human rights and not secondary concerns, and Wall Street's grip on elected officials has rigged the economy against workers," said Josh Orton, a progressive strategist. "But the closer any debate gets to touching the tribal primary divisions, the more likely it will become an unwinnable, never-ending comment section argument battling over false equivalencies."

A group of 21 party leaders selected by Hillary Clinton and Sanders—known as the DNC’s Unity Reform Commission—met last week to begin drafting recommendations about how to increase the number of Democratic voters and improve the party’s primary process.

The meeting was mostly cordial, although the members did debate everything from whether Iowa and New Hampshire should be the first two states in the nominating contest to improving the party-run caucus process in some states.

"The party is going through a bit of an identity crisis in terms of what it is going forward," said Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign last year.

The commission is also tackling the issue of superdelegates, the party leaders who are given a vote in the presidential nominating process and who last year overwhelmingly backed Clinton in her primary fight against Sanders, even though he walked into the national convention carrying 40 percent of the primary vote. Indeed, the Vermont senator’s supporters considered their presence a corruption of the democratic process.

The party’s fights in 2017 often seem like an extension of that primary. Sanders and his supporters argue Democrats have become too cozy with Wall Street, which is why they’re angry about Obama’s speaking fee. (Sanders called the former president’s decision "distasteful.")

Sanders has also taken return fire: His decision to campaign for Heath Mello, a mayoral candidate in Omaha, Neb., drew criticism from abortion-rights activists that the senator downplays women’s issues.

Mello supported measures in the Nebraska Legislature that would restrict abortion rights, though his supporters say his views have evolved in recent years.

"If Democrats think the path forward following the 2016 election is to support candidates who substitute their own judgement and ideology for that of their female constituents, they have learned all the wrong lessons and are bound to lose," said NARAL Pro-Choice President Ilyse Hogue, in a statement from April. "It’s not possible to have an authentic conversation about economic security for women that does not include our ability to decide when and how we have children."

The controversy didn’t end there. Hogue’s statement also criticized Perez, who appeared with Sanders at the Mello rally.

In response, Perez said that "every Democrat" should support abortion rights – a statement that in turn caused its own firestorm inside the party.

Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi implicitly rebuked that sentiment, telling The Washington Post that Democrats who don’t support abortion rights should nonetheless feel welcome.

Other Democrats were similarly upset, saying they shouldn’t be kicked out of the party at a time when Democrats badly need to grow their ranks.

"If you differ with me, that doesn’t make me less of a Democrat," said Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Nebraska. "You shouldn’t demonize pro-life Democrats from Nebraska."

The ongoing fight over Mello is reflective of a larger debate in the party about whether it should emphasize its cultural values or economic agenda.

Many Democrats aren’t yet worried about intra-party squabbles. After such a bitter defeat, they argue, there is going to be tension.

And they say some of the debates themselves are more academic than pointing at substantive differences in the party. Democrats might get angry about Obama’s speaking fee, but they aren’t questioning whether to repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty