This post has been updated, 1: 20 p.m.
In the 1990s, when the Clintons were in the White House, the Democratic Party got into the habit of making compromises, both personal and political.
President Bill Clinton was determined to show he was not a typical “liberal,” a term that had become an epithet. As governor of Arkansas and candidate for president, he denounced hip-hop artist Sister Souljah for justifying black-on-white violence and refused to grant clemency to cop-killer Ricky Ray Rector, who was executed despite his mental incompetence. As president, he signed a welfare-reform bill over the anguished protests of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and balanced the budget while proclaiming that “the era of big government is over.”
Many Democrats were unhappy with this “triangulation,” but they gritted their teeth because Clinton also attempted to expand health-care coverage and keep abortion legal — and he was better than the Republicans. For the same reasons, Democrats overcame their qualms over the Clintons’ personal conduct, ranging from dodgy financial deals (cattle futures, Whitewater) to his treatment of women, which led to credible accusations of sexual harassment and even rape. Democrats were the feminist party, but they made excuses for Clinton that they would never have made for a Republican.
You can argue that in 2016, Democrats paid a heavy price for years of compromises. Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump because her image was already so tarnished. Trump could get away with calling her “Crooked Hillary,” unfair as the charge was, because she had violated government regulations by using a private email server and she had tolerated the appearance of conflicts of interest among Clinton Foundation donors. Hillary Clinton, for her part, had to pull her punches on Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct because she had spent decades excusing her own husband’s peccadillos. After the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, Trump even fought back by appearing with Bill Clinton’s female accusers.
Well, those days are gone. Now, for better or worse, Democrats are in an uncompromising mood, both on ideology and ethics.
The party has shifted sharply leftward since 2016. All of its presidential contenders in the Senate — Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) — voted against a resolution warning against the “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan. Save for Klobuchar, they are all championing Medicare-for-all, free college tuition, a Green New Deal and other expensive programs.
When asked how to pay for this wish list, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) advocated hiking the top marginal income tax rate to 70 percent — and received a largely positive reaction from a party that had spent decades trying to shake its “tax and spend” image. Axios reports that polling of the Democratic electorate in Iowa “found that ‘socialism’ had a net positive rating, while ‘capitalism’ had a net negative rating.” In this progressive environment, Axios notes, moderates such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and former vice president Joe Biden are questioning whether they can compete for the nomination. And even the progressive candidates have to make abject apologies for offenses such as being pro-Wall Street or tough on crime.
Along with intolerance of centrist policies has come intolerance of personal misconduct by politicians. BuzzFeed revealed on Nov. 20, 2017, that Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D.-Mich.) had been accused of sexual harassment. Within a few weeks, the longest-serving member of Congress was forced to resign. Sen. Al Franken (D.-Minn.) left two days later after he had been accused by several women of touching and kissing them without their consent, even though his alleged behavior fell well short of the sort of charges made against Harvey Weinstein. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman lasted all of three hours after the New Yorker ran an article accusing him of physically abusing women.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) has now discovered for himself how unforgiving Democrats have become. On Friday, news broke that his 1984 medical-school yearbook featured a photo of a man in blackface next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam at first admitted that he was in the photo before, bizarrely, denying it the next day. It didn’t matter: Virtually the entire Democratic Party establishment, both nationally and in Virginia, had already called on him to resign.
It’s true that Democrats’ speed in ejecting errant officeholders risks miscarriages of justice — something that some Democrats think may have happened with Franken, who was forced out before the Ethics Committee could complete its investigation. But, on balance, Democrats’ willingness to hold their politicians to a high standard is a welcome change from the hypocrisy of the Clinton era — and compares favorably with the GOP’s support for the likes of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.), Rep. Steve King (Iowa) and President Trump despite evidence of their racism (and, in Trump’s case, numerous other ethical lapses including #MeToo issues).
Democrats’ rejection of Clinton-style centrism in favor of progressive purity is more problematic. Their left turn risks alienating the independents and moderates whose support they need to defeat Trump — and to govern effectively. The United States already has one extremist party; it doesn’t need another.