Presidential primaries pick a party’s nominee, but they also force the party to define its identity and its agenda. For instance, in 2016, the primary process revealed that the Republican Party was much more xenophobic, authoritarian and fearful of increasing diversity than many of its representatives had believed.

Today, the Democratic Party is trying to define itself. How liberal does it want to be? What sort of government does it want to create? What would America look like if it had its way? And who is this party supposed to represent?

These questions are still being debated, as they should be; until one candidate secures the nomination, we won’t know the answers (and they’ll be only partial even then). But recent developments have sharpened those questions in ways that are likely to be contentious.

Consider the new candidacy of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Since he announced his bid, media stories have detailed the ways Bloomberg has departed from both liberal ideology and Democratic Party interests. Among them:

  • He directed the expansion of stop-and-frisk in New York, which subjected hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents, mostly black and brown, to years of harassment and fear. (Bloomberg recently apologized for the policy.)
  • He endorsed George W. Bush in 2004.
  • He spent millions of dollars helping Republican candidates who had endorsed some gun safety measures.
  • He blamed the Great Recession not on banks but on affordable housing policies.
  • He supported the Iraq War, and at an event in 2004 said, “Don't forget that the war started not very many blocks from here,” encouraging the false belief that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the September 11 attacks.
  • At a time when other Democrats are talking about taking the country back from plutocrats and raising their taxes, Bloomberg is the eighth-richest American, with a fortune of $53 billion.

There are more things one could mention. While he may not have yet been forced to explain where he fits within the party, I’d guess Bloomberg would point to his huge investments in advocacy on gun violence and climate change, then pivot to arguing he’s the one best equipped to beat President Trump.

Which raises another question Democrats have to answer for themselves: Is that all that matters? Or does it matter so much that it’s all they should be thinking about?

You might believe it is and still decide that someone other than Bloomberg is most likely to accomplish that goal. But this is something Democrats are grappling with. Joe Biden, for instance, has a number of plans for substantial policy change, but his fundamental appeal is that what we need is essentially to reset to the way things were before Trump, and then it’ll be okay. Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, argue that our most important problems long predate Trump, and they can’t be solved without sweeping change that reorders the power relations in American society.

Those arguments have brought pushback from party centrists like former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. He argued on Sunday’s “This Week” that the party’s true identity is based in “respecting the value of work, shared responsibility, equal access to opportunity. And the fact is, free income, free college, guaranteed health care has walked away from the traditional value system” of Democrats.

If you’re presenting things like guaranteed health care and free college as in opposition to “respecting the value of work,” it means you think that only shiftless layabouts who don’t want to work would benefit from those things. Perhaps Emanuel might introduce himself to some of the tens of millions of Americans who work very hard but still struggle to afford insurance and tuition for their kids.

But he represents a particular vision of the Democratic Party, one that says the only road to victory is to pay tribute to conservative values and hope Republicans aren’t too mean to you.

That particular perspective carries much less weight in the party than it did when Emanuel was working for Bill Clinton, despite Emanuel’s ample megaphone to promote it. Even the more moderate candidates, well aware of how opinions have shifted, are supporting significant expansions of government. Meanwhile, Julián Castro has been arguing that the party is still too solicitous of white voters, lamenting the key role in the process played by Iowa and New Hampshire, which have tiny numbers of people of color.

If the argument is whether to motivate Democratic voters or reach across the middle (an oversimplification, to be clear), it’s obvious where Bloomberg stands. As Politico reports, his first campaign appearance in Norfolk, Va., “was aimed at appealing to swing voters in heavily conservative areas.” Which is something of an odd way to try to win the Democratic nomination.

Indeed, Bloomberg’s candidate offers a test of an unusual proposition: Can someone who is only nominally a member of a party, and who has taken many positions at odds with that party’s consensus, win its nomination if he has virtually limitless money to spend?

If Bloomberg succeeds, it will reveal something important about the Democratic Party in 2020: that its liberal policy agenda is, if not entirely disposable, at least not a dealbreaker. It seems unlikely, but we’ll soon find out.

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