Are Democrats Trying to Self-Destruct?

If they want to beat Trump, they can’t box themselves in.

We’ve all heard the term “raging liberal.” Derogatory in nature, the term refers to passionate, vocal left-wing Democrats. But it’s time to add a new moniker to the political lexicon: “Angry moderate.”

After 19 years serving as a government lawyer at the Departments of Justice and the Treasury, I fall squarely into this camp. My two decades in Washington have taught me that progress comes slowly. It comes in increments. It comes through the politics of the possible. And while my level of anger may very well match that of the raging liberal, I believe that the sanest approach Democrats can take in this election is to scrap any purity tests for its candidates.

To repair the damage President Donald Trump has wrought on the country and our democratic institutions, one thing must happen above all else: a Democrat must win the White House. Yet the most progressive wing of the party has been creating undue hurdles for Democrats to successfully oust Trump. It’s like watching a train wreck about to happen.

The first obstacle: certain self-imposed donor restrictions that the candidates have elected to implement. To be sure, some self-imposed campaign finance restrictions are reasonable and consistent with Democratic values. Indeed, here’s the good news: None of the 2020 hopefuls are taking corporate PAC money this year.

But some other self-imposed restrictions have become burdensome and unnecessary tests of progressive purity. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have foregone large dollar closed fundraisers throughout the primary, which is true to their brands and pleases devoted supporters. Warren, like Sanders, has also rejected Super PAC money and funds from fossil fuel and pharmaceutical company donors, likewise true to brand. Both Sanders and Warren have relied on a high volume of small-dollar grass-roots donations and have rejected big dollar, limited-access campaign fundraisers. Thus far, that has been immensely successful for their campaigns. They have shown the tremendous power of small, online contributions. And Warren’s admirable selfie-lines set the standard for candidate accessibility. Their commendable approach should be the model going forward.

But for 2020, the Sanders and Warren approach may be tantamount to tying an arm behind their respective backs. This model remains in test mode. Democratic voters and activists as a whole are not yet fully “trained” on the new way of operating and supporting candidates. Warren has pledged to reject large-dollar fundraisers through the general election if she becomes the nominee. That level of purity is where the red flag goes up.

Simply put, Democrats cannot afford to bring a cheese knife to a gun fight. Big dollars will be necessary to win in 2020. Between being the incumbent, having Russian bots on his side, and having foreign dollars pour into his coffers, Trump will have the edge—financial and otherwise—over the eventual Democrat nominee.

With the stakes higher than ever before, now is not the time to say “no” to money just because it’s coming from very wealthy, high-net-worth individuals. Large donations from rich people who want to defeat Trump should be welcomed. In fact, there’s no reason a candidate shouldn’t collect big checks in a fancy home. Democrats need all the legitimate help they can get to save the country from a lawless and reckless president.

No one is suggesting that Democrats allow big donors to replace and out-influence the broader voting public, or the grassroots activists who flock to rallies. Nor should Democrats accept donations from shady special interests or become beholden to big corporations. But they also shouldn’t kiss much needed funds goodbye. Conventional fundraisers can and should continue, at least through 2020, to serve as supplementary vehicles for accumulating the funds necessary to beat Trump and the GOP machine. Once the Democrats regain the White House and the majority in both houses of Congress, we can revisit the notion of discouraging big-dollar wine cave fundraisers.

No doubt, it is difficult to convince elected officials to get rid of a system that helps them politically. That will become a necessary priority, but it has to be put on hold. In other words, liberal activists and thought leaders will need to ramp up pressure on campaign finance reform once Democrats take back control of Washington.

Donations are not the only area where progressives are self-defeating. Demanding nothing less than Medicare for All, after the herculean effort it took to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is not conducive to securing a White House win. A November 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows the public option approach continues to be more viable than Medicare-for-All.

Democrats can agree that we want all Americans to have health care. But pushing for a highly unrealistic legislative jujitsu—with a heart-attack inducing price tag—in a highly competitive general election isn’t worth the risk of four more years of a dangerous, racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and incurious president.

A more modest health care reform proposal, such as Phillip Longman’s idea of Medicare Prices for All, could cause dramatic improvements without alienating much-needed voters. Add to that a number of democracy reforms to prevent the GOP from holding the country hostage through minority rule, and Democrats will have a winning message palatable to most Americans.

As of this writing, recent Iowa polling shows that Sanders and Warren are overtaking Biden and Pete Buttigieg. Undoubtedly, many Americans are energized by the ideals of Sanders and Warren. But when Democrats latch onto the extreme, such as with donor purity or unrealistic domestic policy proposals, they box themselves in. At a time when Democrats need to be practical, they are at risk of self-destruction.

Democrats, independents, and open-minded Republicans, who will be watching Tuesday night’s debate closely, are collectively holding their breath to see whom the party chooses as its nominee. The first indication will come in less than a month, when Iowa holds the first-in-the-nation caucus.

Until then, remember: it doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself more as a “raging liberal” or an “angry moderate.” It doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself more of a Bernie guy or a Biden girl. This election is about nothing less than saving democracy. The pain you feel today will be just a fraction of what you will feel if Democrats lose in 2020 because the left allowed purity tests to come at the expense of beating Trump.

Donate Now to the Washington Monthly and your gift will be doubled

Julie Rodin Zebrak

Julie Rodin Zebrak is the Washington Monthly's director of digital strategy and outreach. She is a veteran attorney with nearly 20 years of experience at the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice, and the founder and CEO of Yes Moms Can.