House Democrats pulled back a vote on a budget resolution this week after progressives pushed back in favor of higher domestic spending. Party leaders should look to a similar ideological insurgency in the Republican Party to learn some lessons before it’s too late.
The conservative “tea party” burst onto the scene in 2009 with a bang. Just as high-profile victories have empowered today’s progressive caucus, no more so than that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), so too did the tea party get its zing from a series of high-profile primary wins against incumbents or highly favored insiders. These new Republicans immediately put their stamp on the party, pushing for a government shutdown to force lower spending or to defund Obamacare. They also enthusiastically backed plans by then-House Budget Committee Chair Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to replace Medicare with a voucher program — ahem, “premium support” — to dramatically reduce federal spending over time.
The GOP establishment never quite knew how to react. Its leaders ultimately chose a cunning but flawed approach. Rather than engage the insurgents over principle, they played a double game. The official party mantra took on tea party goals — repealing Obamacare, addressing the entitlements crisis, reducing federal spending — yet the insiders knew that moderate reluctance and Democratic resistance would prevent any of these ideas from becoming law. The result produced a false party unity that deepened resentment among the most committed tea party believers.
This, in turn, created the House Freedom Caucus and the Ted Cruz phenomenon. The happy band of conservative nihilists could wreak havoc within their respective chambers. They toppled one speaker (John A. Boehner of Ohio) and made life miserable for another (Ryan) by insisting on purist conservative ideas that could not pass both chambers. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) whipped up party loyalists to push the Senate into the ill-fated government shutdown of 2013, at one point telling his fellow GOP senators that if they did not back the shutdown, they were supporters of Obamacare. Leaders knew they were losing control and that these measures were doomed to fail, but having ceded the philosophic high ground to the insurgents to buy peace, they had no ability to defy their demands.
Democrats seem to be in denial that something similar is happening to them, but the evidence to the contrary is everywhere. Presidential candidates are leaping over themselves to be more progressive than one another. Among the most visible examples of the progressive wing pushing their priorities onto the Democratic agenda: proposing reparations for slavery, eliminating private health insurance, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, and advocating the Green New Deal. Fealty to such positions is increasingly becoming a litmus test for party leadership.
Democratic pragmatists have so far been following their GOP counterparts’ playbook. They make appeals to unity and the ability to “show we can govern.” They contend that they have to get Republican consent to pass anything because of GOP control of the Senate. But those arguments simply egged the tea party on, suggesting that the establishment didn’t really share their goals. There’s little reason to think that Democratic ideological progressives, who have felt for decades that the party has shunted them aside for corporate favoritism and go-along, get-along Clintonism, will be any more open to their leadership’s appeals.
Democrats should instead bite the bullet and have a real argument over principle with their progressive friends. They should make a principled case for traditional Democratic ideals that seek to bring the marginalized in contact with the American Dream and distinguish it from the socialist visions of its progressive wing. In short, they should be willing to have the internal fights they had in 1948, when Democrats faced down revolts from a segregationist right and a progressive left and still won the general election.
The urge to avoid conflict is strong, and usually it is an instinct worth heeding. But take it from a Republican who was seen this play before: Deferring an inevitable conflict only makes things worse. Fight now while you still can.