A “Democrats In Disarray” Story for the Ages

The New York Times Magazine’s‘ Robert Draper, who last drew major attention for speculating that Rand Paul’s presidential campaign might create a “libertarian moment,” swings for the fences again in a “Democrats in Disarray” piece for the ages. I don’t know if his essay completely justifies the headline: “The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016”. But he sure does show that if you look at the 2014 elections strictly from the perspective of Democrats who want to make apocalyptic claims about the plight of the party and then refuse to acknowledge any alternative explanation, then yeah, it looks pretty bad.

Maybe I’m prejudiced because I wrote a whole book–not a long book, but still a book–about 2014 without once considering the argument that Democrats lost because they were in the grip of mad lefty hippies, or because they had sold their souls to Wall Street. Yes, I was aware there was a sizable and vocal group of people who subscribed to each proposition, but let myself be seduced by political scientists and other dispassionate people that things like turnout patterns, the economy, the electoral landscape, and the long history of second-term midterm disasters for the party controlling the White House, probably mattered more than the struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party some have been waging for decades.

Robert Draper looks at 2014, however, and just becomes confused:

The problem is that neither wing can muster an entirely airtight case that theirs is the road map to electoral success. Sroka, of Democracy for America, says that last November’s election “was a good night for progressives,” pointing to the successful re-election campaigns waged by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who each employed anti-Wall Street rhetoric. But in purple states, House Democrats like Alan Grayson of Florida, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Tom Perriello of Virginia all ran on Obama’s progressive achievements in 2010 and lost, as did Shea-Porter again in 2014.

Moderate Democrats cite the Senate victories of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Joe Donnelly in Indiana in 2012 as models for how Democrats can expand the map in their favor by proffering candidates who are not to the left of their electorate. On the other hand, Mark Warner, the Virginia senator and popular centrist, was nearly defeated in 2014 by failing to motivate the Democratic base. And the moderate Senate Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana did all they could to distance themselves from Obama’s Affordable Care Act and were still routed. The election results are a jumble of counterindicators, from which anything and nothing can be concluded, allowing each side to blame the other after a loss.

Guess what? Most elections are a “jumble of counterindicators” if that’s all you are looking for, which seems to be the case for Draper. So wedded is he to a vision of Democratic divisions that he leaps from explanations of 2014 that barely mention the presidential/midterm turnout gap or the insanely pro-Republican Senate landscape, into an extended gaze at the upcoming 2016 Maryland Senate primary pitting “pragmatist” Chris van Hollen against “progressive” Donna Edwards, which Draper seems to consider the signature event of the entire cycle, even though he concedes that it will probably have no impact on the name of the party that will control this seat.

But give the man credit for sticking to his guns and relying on Markos Moulitsas and Jonathan Cowen to buttress the impression of intraparty warfare because that’s what they do, and turning a strange interview with Nancy Pelosi in which she tries to pour cold water on his hypothesis into a confirmation of it.

There’s not much question which side of this argument Draper comes down on, with his comparisons of Democratic progressives to the Tea Party Movement and his frequent references to a Democratic Party being pulled “away from the center” by people who seem like aliens to regular Americans. One tell-tale sign is that he managed to track down Albert Wynn, the guy beaten in a rare 2008 Democratic congressional primary by Donna Edwards, and quote him as saying the crazy lefties aren’t even correctly appealing to African-Americans.

But it’s the whole meme that strikes me as overwrought, maybe because I lived through the “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” of the 1990s and 2000s, and really don’t think we need to relive or relitigate it today.

One reason I’ve venting at such length about this is that Draper had the incredible good fortune to have his piece published on the very day when the MSM is full of stories about congressional Democrats going on an ideological bender and smiting Barack Obama on Trade Promotion Authority. As I argued yesterday, that’s almost certainly an oversimplification of the story, since the Democratic cosponsor of the legislation that was stalled in the Senate, perhaps momentarily, was a big part of the alleged smiting.

But truth is, there’s always a market for “Democrats in disarray” stories, though you do wonder if Barbara Mikulski might have headed this one off by canceling her retirement.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.