The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton’s approval of incivility, and the Democrats’ overreach problem

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This post has been updated.

Hillary Clinton this week offered what can only be described as a justification for incivility — at least temporarily until Democrats retake power.

Then video surfaced of former attorney general Eric Holder urging Democrats to shed Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high" mantra for “When they go low, we kick them.”

This rekindles a months-old civility debate that I won’t re-litigate here; what’s most notable are the sources. Clinton and Holder are the very definition of establishment politicians, and they’re espousing a view that previously pitted an anxious, more anti-civility liberal base against a warier, more pro-civility party establishment. The fact that even they would go there suggests exasperation with Democrats' historically poor political lot has boiled over.

And it lays bare very uneasy choices the Democratic Party is confronting in this moment — starting with Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and stretching into the party probably winning back the House in November.

On a whole host of issues, including civility, investigating Kavanaugh and the Trump administration, and policy, Democrats are having a difficult time navigating a united path forward. They are torn between a base that sees how President Trump and the GOP have risen to power by brute political force, extremism and culture wars and feels the need to emulate that, and leaders who seem to genuinely believe that Democrats can’t do the same things.

In recent months, this internal discord has loomed over many issues, including single-payer health care, impeaching Trump, and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. In each instance, the party’s leaders broadly opposed what the base increasingly favored for fear of going too far left, alienating swing voters and losing the chance to govern in the first place.

On single-payer health care, potential Democratic presidential candidates jumped onboard almost in unison last year, even as the likes of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) shrugged it off. This despite 74 percent of Democratic voters supporting it in a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll this year.

Pelosi, Schumer and other Democratic leaders also have suggested that impeachment talk is premature, despite 75 percent of Democratic voters favoring that. Base support for abolishing ICE is lower, but 82 percent of liberals have a negative view of the agency. Party leaders have tempered this push, as well.

Among them, notably, is Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.). The Chicago liberal has been a driving force behind the party’s immigration agenda in recent years, but he told the New York Times this week that calls to abolish ICE are a distraction and a gift to the other side. “I mean, you want to change the conversation from the inhumanity of caging children to abolishing ICE?” Gutierrez told the Times’s Robert Draper. “They must have been jumping for joy at the White House.”

Similarly, vulnerable Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) on Tuesday rebuked Clinton’s rhetoric in no uncertain terms. “That’s ridiculous,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I mean, I can’t imagine how you get anything done if you don’t bring civility back into politics, and that goes for both sides.”

And the Heitkamp example is illustrative. The path to the Senate majority runs through red states like hers, and she’s clearly wary of rhetoric like Clinton’s. Trump won 30 states in 2016. Similarly, in the House, the median district favored Trump by more than three points.

As I argued last year, the realities of the electoral map and how our population has sorted itself mean Democrats need to compete in red territory in a way that Republicans simply don’t in blue territory. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Democrats need to change things up, because their current approach doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps going left and fighting fire with some fire could create a political realignment by expanding their base.

But it’s not so simple as emulating what Republicans have done. And change for change’s sake — especially when it’s cathartic rather than strategic — can backfire. The prospect of overreach is significantly nearer to Democrats' current political position than it is to Republicans' right now.

And we may be seeing that to some degree with Kavanaugh. Democrats who were upset about the GOP’s gamesmanship on Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick in 2016, waged a failed effort to stop the nominee, who was accused of sexual misconduct, in the face of difficult odds. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) talked about his “I am Spartacus” moment, Democrats walked out of a committee session, and some Democrats were tempted to embrace an unsubstantiated, extremely lurid allegation put forward by Michael Avenatti.

Although Kavanaugh ended the process as a historically unpopular new justice, a CNN poll this week showed that Americans viewed Democrats' handling of the hearings slightly more dimly (disapproving 58 percent to 30 percent) than Republicans' (53 percent to 32 percent). And the whole thing has apparently fired up the GOP base in the red states that Democrats needed to win the Senate, perhaps foreclosing that.

They may not have won the Senate anyway, but it’s not at all clear that Democrats did themselves any favors by going all in to try to stop Kavanaugh. They still may have done it, given the stakes and the allegations, but political calculations factor into all of this.

Clinton is someone who is known for doing that math, and her and Holders’s decisions to venture away from pragmatism and civility is hugely notable. They reflect an extremely uneasy, divisive and consequential debate among Democrats in the weeks after the Kavanaugh fight and before the midterm election.