The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Where will Democratic infighting lead? History’s answer is clear.

A demonstrator holds a sign outside the Supreme Court on Dec. 1. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
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Pardon me if I pass on pity parties over the Supreme Court’s likely disembowelment of Roe v. Wade. Not that the likelihood of Roe’s ruination isn’t sickening. It’s just that this outrage could be seen coming. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe. The nation had fair warning.

Now, three of the six justices poised to undo Roe — Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were appointed by Republican President Trump.

Elections have consequences.

The current ruckus over Roe is a reminder that we are, once again, at a pivotal moment.

Joe Biden is on the path to a one-term presidency.

That disastrous outcome lies down a dangerous road being paved by a fractious Democratic Party. Such a consequence would be devastating to the 81.2 million Americans who chose Biden over Trump. As in 2016, the country is on notice. Sadly, now as then, Democrats are too engaged in infighting to bother with the real and present danger: a Republican takeover of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterms.

A Democratic Party in the minority on both sides of the Capitol will put the Biden presidency on a 2024 watch list.

You can argue that Biden and other Democrats should be in much better shape for having, in less than a year, passed a pandemic aid package worth $1.9 trillion, enacted a massive infrastructure bill and sent to the Senate a safety-net expansion measure as transformative as any since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty in the 1960s.

But that would require discounting the class warfare waged over the roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better measure that finally survived prolonged clashes among centrists and progressives in the House.

Somewhere in the debate over the budget reconciliation package, the existential threat to Biden’s programs shifted from right-wing Republican opposition inspired by Trump to left-wing complaints of “corporate Democrats” beholden to corrupt businesses, Big Pharma and the ultra-wealthy.

The nasty internecine struggles left Biden with slumping poll numbers, fueled by the not-too-sub-rosa argument that the president doesn’t quite know how to handle his job, that he is pushed around by powerful special interests, and that he is not up to harnessing today’s populist moment.

It's not hard to see where this is all going.

Let Senate and House Democrats get shown the door next year — at least enough to shift the Senate majority leader’s seat from Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the House speaker’s gavel from Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — and Biden can expect, as night follows day, a challenge to his renomination.

And America, we have been there before.

Are you old enough to remember 1979? Well, I was there as a deputy assistant secretary in Jimmy Carter’s Treasury Department, and later as his U.S. executive-director-appointee at the World Bank.

The fractured relationships between the Carter White House and key Capitol Hill liberals produced a spectacle.

In early November 1979, Carter, a sitting president, faced a serious challenge from within: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) sought to replace him on the party’s presidential ticket.

Carter won the nomination, but given the costs and lingering damage of the harsh primary, it was a renomination not worth having. A politically wounded president was trounced by Republican Ronald Reagan — and a 12-year Republican reign in the White House ensued.

It’s fair to ask whether an incumbent Biden, saddled with a Republican Congress and an ankle-biting Democratic left, would decide it’s better to just hang it up.

If Biden opts against seeking reelection, it would take us even further back, to 1968, when Johnson, hounded by unpopular Vietnam policies, stepped aside. That horrendous year is too painful to revisit in this column. But Vice President Hubert Humphrey took up the cudgel and made a run for it, losing by the narrowest of margins to Republican Richard M. Nixon — yielding five years of a Nixon White House until Watergate brought him down.

The turmoil and heartache of 1968 and 1980 might be avoided in 2024 if Democrats choose a different path today.

First, close the progressive-centrist divide. Those differences hardly outweigh the fallout that would result from right-wing victories next year.

The unifying Democratic focus should be beating Republicans — in Senate and House races.

A campaign focused on malevolent redistricting and voting restrictions should energize the entire Democratic spectrum. So, too, an agenda that delivers for a majority in America.

It involves more than messaging.

A president and Congress seen united and fighting for people will be a team that gets rewarded at the polls. Accomplishing that calls for less selfish and self-serving political behavior — from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — and more care toward making life better for Americans.

Much of the country slept when Trump piped up about the Supreme Court and Roe in 2016. Wake up. No more pity parties.

There is time to change course.