This is how many Democrats feel about their party. Any success it has must be luck, and its fortunes always teeter on a tightrope, with the barest political breeze all that’s necessary to push them over into disaster.
Oh no, people are attacking Nancy Pelosi! Oh no, people might not like it if we criticize the wealthy! Oh no, we need to stop being mean to this incredibly unpopular president! Oh no, the voters will think we’re too liberal! Oh no, our presidential primary hasn’t already been settled and the first votes will be cast in only three months!
A week ago, the New York Times told us that Democratic donors were convinced that the primaries are going terribly (“Would Hillary Clinton get in, the contributors wondered, and how about Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor?”). Now the Associated Press tells us that voters are also feeling unsettled:
Major donors and party leaders across the country have publicly and privately raised concerns about the direction of the primary election recently as well. But interviews with dozens of primary voters across Iowa and New Hampshire in recent days reveal a pervasive feeling of unease.
“Democrats: A Pervasive Feeling of Unease” wouldn’t be a bad description of the party’s default state. But this is absolutely crazy.
Let’s begin by remembering that four years ago, the party did what people seem to be asking for: It settled on a consensus nominee early on, leading many potential candidates to decide not to run. That plan was temporarily upset by Bernie Sanders, but Hillary Clinton’s early coronation did nothing to allay Democratic fears; they simply decided to worry about that instead, that they had decided too early on a candidate who had too much baggage to win the general election (in that case, the fears weren’t misplaced).
The truth is that contested primaries are usually quite useful for parties. Not only do they allow for an extended, vigorous debate about what the party stands for and which direction it should go, they test the skills and resilience of the eventual nominee.
You know who had to fight through contested primaries? Donald Trump. And Barack Obama. And George W. Bush. And Bill Clinton. All of them were met with skepticism within their party (though Bush less than the others), and all showed they had what it took to win by demonstrating talents that might not have been initially apparent and vanquishing their primary opponents.
The reason a contested primary is important is that running for president is so unique, and it’s hard to tell how someone will perform in that atmosphere of high pressure until they’re forced to do it. There are plenty of examples of people who seemed like extremely skilled politicians but weren’t able to put together a successful presidential campaign. Just to take one example at random, a certain senator from Delaware was considered a strong contender — excellent orator, common touch, record of wide-ranging legislative work to point to — but he turned out to be an absolute dud as a presidential candidate, running two failed races for the White House.
Now that candidate, Joe Biden, is running for a third time. Maybe things will be different and maybe they won’t, but we won’t know until he’s forced to fight it out with the rest of the field over the next six months or so. If he wins the nomination, it will be because he’s capable of running a better campaign than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg or anyone else. If one of them beats him, it will be because they’re more capable than he is. There’s only one way to find out.
Democrats’ impostor syndrome goes beyond presidential races; they suffer from a persistent fear that if the public sees them for who they are, they’ll inevitably fail. That’s despite the fact that most of the things they advocate are overwhelmingly popular.
Perhaps not coincidentally, their opponents have the kind of bold confidence that can only be found in a mediocre white man. Republicans have a spectacularly unpopular agenda — tax cuts for the rich, ignoring climate change, outlawing abortion — and yet they act as though victory in every election is their birthright. Even when they lose, they decide they need only to be exactly what they were before, but more so.
Democrats could learn a thing or two from that. Their best chance at winning next November is to have a spirited primary, figure out who their strongest candidate is and then unite behind that person. And stop telling themselves catastrophe is inevitable.