The Democratic Party in the Trump era is increasingly at odds with itself. In the quest to be all things to all parts of its coalition, the party’s members are making some very short-sighted compromises they may soon come to regret.
The Democratic Party that wants to win elections recognizes it is in a grim place. Those who count themselves members of this faction made an early effort to understand the Trump voter and seek accommodation with him or her. After all, many Trump supporters were once the white, working-class Democrats Barack Obama threw to the wolves in 2011. He presumed—correctly, as it happens—that he didn’t need them to win reelection.
Yet there are also liberals who are deeply resentful of any outreach to the Democrats who broke ranks for Trump. “After the debacle of 2016, might the time have at last come for Democrats to weaponize their anger instead of swallowing it?” wrote New York Magazine’s Frank Rich in a column entitled, “no sympathy for the hillbilly.” “I have no patience for liberal talk of reaching out to Trump voters,” wrote New York Times columnist Charles Blow. These liberal luminaries channeled the bitter Democratic id, and they appear to have won the argument. At least, for now.
Republicans are perplexed by the Democrats seeming antipathy toward not just Trump voters, but Democrats who would not be considered members of the urban, coastal, culturally progressive activist set. Observers were perplexed by Bernie Sanders’s coy refusal to call Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello a “progressive” because of his antipathy toward abortion. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez made Sanders’s objections explicit when he suggested the Democratic Party is no home for anyone who considers themselves pro-life, a comment that compelled House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to despairingly thrust head into hands and scold her party’s institutional leadership.
In fact, Pelosi and Perez are responding to a distinct set of incentives. Pelosi wants her majority back, and she doesn’t care how she gets it. For Perez, electing Democrats comes later. His priority right now is to keep the Democratic donor class engaged, and that means keeping the energy up and bodies in the streets. “The Resistance” may be a bit manic. “AntiFa” may be a little violent. Progressive opinion leaders may be a bit fundamentalist. But Democrats dare not alienate them. These elements keep the pot boiling, the donations flowing, and the enthusiasm pitched.
In elevating the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to prominence, however, the opposition to Donald Trump has sacrificed relatability to a broader base of voters; it has also given up on coherence. Nothing is so demonstrative of the Democratic Party’s demand for rambling nonsense as was Senator Elizabeth Warren’s criticism of former President Barack Obama’s recent decision to accept $400,000 to address the Wall Street investment firm, Cantor Fitzgerald.
I was troubled by that. One of the things I talk about in the book is the influence of money. I describe it as a, you know, a snake that slithers through Washington. And that it shows up in so many different ways here in Washington. You know, people understand that the money that goes into campaign contributions—and, when I say understand, I don’t mean they think it’s okay—but at least people see it. The money that goes into hiring lobbyists. But it’s also the money that goes into bought and paid-for experts. The money that goes into think tanks that have these shadowy funders, and the think tanks that have these shadowy funders, and the think tanks always come up with the things their shadowy funders want them to come up with. Even advertising. I talk about the studies that show that, when an industry takes out ads, it changes news coverage. I even talk about the U.S. Supreme Court and how much more pro-corporate it is becoming because of money that’s being spent in Washington. So, you know, the influence of dollars on this place is what scares me. I think it ultimately threatens democracy.
There’s so much to unpack here.
Warren’s criticism of Obama is distinct from that which typified liberal critiques of Hillary Clinton. As an aspirant for higher office, many across the political spectrum had reservations about Clinton both accepting remuneration from Wall Street firms and conspicuously refusing to release the content of her speeches. Those addresses may, after all, have reflected her views on some critical policy matters. Barack Obama is a private citizen. He will not hold public office again. Warren’s criticisms do not apply to him.
Warren seems to know this. She is reduced to prattling on with a stream-of-consciousness screed attacking, in essence, private compensatory agreements between firms that contract out services and individuals who render them. She even goes so far as to as to observe that “studies” suggest that commercial advertising can shape the national dialogue. That’s literally the whole point of advertising. Needless to say, this is not a compelling argument.
Barack Obama hardly needs the $400,000 he received from Cantor Fitzgerald (or the $400, 0000 he received from addressing A&E Network executives on Thursday). He and his wife secured a $65 million book advance in March. Combined with his measly $200,000 annual pension, the Obamas are living quite comfortably–when they are not vacationing off the coast of Tahiti. Obama apparently wants to become a figure of public relevance in his post-presidency. The prudence of that decision is certainly worth analyzing, but whether or not Obama wants to be compensated for his efforts is no one’s business but his own.
If Warren had an objective in mind here, it wasn’t to make a political argument. She was engaging in brand management. The Senator from Massachusetts has never been shy about speaking her mind or criticizing members of her party—including Obama—particularly when she determined them to be too close to Wall Street. Some could argue with her logic, but few could have honestly called her motives or integrity into question. They can now.