The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Democrats are weirdly unified these days

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has unified the party. Mostly. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

When the controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) comments about U.S. policy toward Israel heated up, many in the news media described it as a bitter conflict within the Democratic Party. Liberals against moderates, young new members against older ones, Dems in disarray!

But then something interesting happened. Democrats got together, came up with a compromise resolution and voted on it — and every last Democrat voted yes. Republicans, on the other hand, were more divided; 23 of their members voted against the inclusive statement condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other kinds of hatred. Some Democrats weren’t overjoyed about it, but they went along.

Although they’ve had a few internal disagreements, Democrats in Congress have been remarkably, even shockingly, unified.

Let’s look at some of what they’ve done. On Friday morning, the House passed H.R. 1, its sweeping political reform bill, and once again, every Democrat voted in favor. Last month, the House passed two gun background-check bills; the mere fact that members are voting on such legislation at all shows that they’ve lost the fear of the NRA that used to grip them. Democrats voted for one measure 225 to 7, and for the other, 232 to 2.

The House Democrats voted to revoke President Trump’s national emergency declaration, with zero Democratic votes against. They passed a bill calling for the removal of U.S. troops from Yemen, with zero Democratic votes against. They passed a bill to raise federal worker pay, with zero Democrats against, and a bill on child care for veterans, also with zero Democratic votes against. They passed a series of appropriations bills with either zero or one vote against.

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It’s true that some of these votes were not controversial, but that’s by no means true of all of them. And it’s more striking when you consider that there are reasons to expect that they would be more divided than they were a year ago, not less.

Whenever you have a big win like Democrats did last year, your caucus is likely to grow more moderate, because you picked up seats in swing districts and maybe even a few that lean to the other side. Those seats are likely to be held by candidates closer to the center. Indeed, a number of Democratic moderates have expressed some nervousness about the party being defined by more liberal figures such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). And last week, in a private meeting The Post described as “explod[ing] in recriminations,” some moderates and liberals had it out over a Republican amendment to one of the background-check bills, which some moderates voted for.

But in the end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) prevailed on everyone that they’ll be much more likely to accomplish their common goals if they stick together. And the members seemed to agree. Which is one of the explanations for the notable Democratic unity at the moment: Although there may be substantive differences from time to time, the party understands that it’s stronger as a united front.

Perhaps Democrats learned a lesson from watching Republicans in recent years, in both the GOP’s successes and failures. Republicans decided in 2009 that they would oppose everything President Barack Obama tried to do, and it was a successful strategy; they stymied him at every turn without really paying a political price. But they ran into trouble when tea party members decided to create conflict, forcing a government shutdown and threatening to default on America’s debt. Those rogue rightists made life hell for two speakers, John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan, who constantly had to put down revolts to accomplish the party’s goals.

Pelosi won't stand for that, and she's simply better at the job than Boehner and Ryan were, finding ways to settle disagreements among her members before they get out of hand and making sure they vote the way she needs them to.

But there’s an even more important reason Democrats are not in disarray: The party is simply not as ideologically diverse as it once was. We’re at the end of a long period of ideological sorting that began in the 1960s, when there were still lots of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Both of those species have pretty much disappeared, and what’s more, as the Democratic Party has moved left in the past couple of years, even the so-called moderates have become pretty liberal.

There’s one more factor keeping Democrats in Congress from fighting with each other: While the presidential candidates and some in the party are developing extremely ambitious plans on things such as health care and climate change, they aren’t likely to come up for votes while Trump is still president. Most everything Democrats pass through the House will be meant to send a message but not become law, and Pelosi is going to carefully select legislation that unites Democrats, is widely popular with the public and puts Republicans in awkward positions.

If you’ve been around long enough to remember when the Republicans were the ruthlessly unified party and getting Democrats to agree on anything was like herding cats, this is awfully strange to see. But those roles have been reversed, and now it’s Democrats who know how to tamp down their differences in service of a larger goal.