Starr Tells Democrats to Keep Their Donkey Eyes On the Donkey Prize

One of our smartest progressive thinkers and writers is American Prospect co-editor Paul Starr. He has a column today suggesting that rank-and-file Republicans are pushing their presidential candidates to the right via a phenomenon known as “group polarization,” and warns liberals to beware the same temptation.

On the Democratic side, the candidates are unlikely to race to the left in a way that’s comparable to the Republican race to the right. But the idle talk about adopting single-payer health care and emulating a Scandinavian welfare state has a similar air of unreality about it. Without a total remaking of American society and politics, these ideas have no chance of being enacted outside of Vermont (which didn’t get anywhere with single-payer after initially approving it).

The rest of his column is a veiled criticism of Bernie Sanders’ campaign as a reflection of myopic anger at the Obama administration (and presumably of the Clinton administration). Here’s what Starr considers the prime objective of the moment:

The Democrats now face one political imperative above all others: holding the presidency so as to restore a liberal majority on the Supreme Court. To be sure, Democrats will have a chance to move the Court further if they also regain control of the Senate, but the presidency is the key. The next four years will likely bring at least one and possibly two retirements among the Court’s liberal justices, and if a Republican president replaces them, conservatives will be able to consolidate their majority and entrench far-right constitutional ideas.

If Democrats can prevent that from happening, there will come a time when they can again pass substantial liberal legislation. But it is not likely to be in the next four years because of the Republican hold on the House.

There are two problems with Starr’s advice, I’d say. The first is that there is no historical precedent for a presidential campaign–either in the primaries or the general election–being organized around constitutional law or Supreme Court appointments. I agree that it should be a huge issue in this cycle, but it probably won’t be, and if it is, it will almost certainly be on the right.

The second problem is that the Democratic temptation to dump Hillary Clinton is at present as much about electability as ideology. Let’s say you buy absolutely everything Starr says and are focused like a laser on that next Supreme Court appointment. Are you absolutely sure Clinton is the best bet to reduce the odds of that appointment being someone who wants to bring back the Lochner era and start shredding the social safety net from the bench?

That’s the real Democratic dilemma right now, more than the delusion Americans are ready for a democratic socialist.

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.