During bouts of gallows humor about our present political condition, it is often said that we are doomed to repeat the 2016 presidential election in perpetuity.
President Donald Trump will not stop attacking his vanquished general election foe more than a year after taking office. His supporters still chant “Lock her up!” Hillary Clinton continues to re-litigate the campaign, devoting an entire book to the subject, continually coming up with new excuses for her shocking loss—some worth rehashing, many more of them not.
For the Democrats, this problem is even worse. While Trump and Ted Cruz have for the most part buried the hatchet, the loyal opposition cannot even get beyond the Democratic primaries the party ostensibly rigged on Clinton’s behalf against septuagenarian socialist Bernie Sanders. This is a major reason the Democratic National Committee still cannot capitalize financially off of Trump’s dysfunction.
In fairness, this isn’t entirely the fault of the main combatants. Clinton and Sanders occasionally take shots at each other, directly or through proxies, but competitive Democratic primaries are lazily described as contests between Hillary-loving centrists and the ascendant “Bernie wing” no matter what is really going on.
Then came this week’s primary in the Texas Seventh Congressional District, which provided fresh evidence that the Democratic establishment genuinely cannot get out of its own way. Democrats are trying to unseat Congressman John Culberson, an incumbent Republican whose district voted for Clinton in 2016. They have a real chance of winning, but the primary ended up being so messy that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee actually published opposition research against an insurgent liberal candidate.
That’s the prerogative of an organization that exists to get Democrats elected to Congress. But such interventions have to be undertaken carefully, or they may backfire.
The target of the DCCC’s ire was a progressive named Laura Moser, whose offenses include writing an article—for The Washingtonian, natch—in which she said she would “sooner have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than live in Texas.
“Democratic voters need to hear that Laura Moser is not going to change Washington,” the DCCC opposition memo retorted. “She is a Washington insider, who begrudgingly moved to Houston to run for Congress.”
It is, of course, easy to envision how Republicans would use Moser’s lack of affection for the Lone Star State—or, as the DCCC put it, her “outright disgust for life in Texas”—against her. It was equally easy to predict how these tactics would trigger a progressive backlash, winning Moser the support of Sanders-aligned groups like Our Revolution over other liberal contenders.
Lo and behold, Moser advanced to the runoff, something that was not a foregone conclusion before the scorched-earth strategy highlighting her regional eccentricities. She only received 24 percent of the vote in a crowded field, but that’s within five points of the top vote-getter.
Up went Moser’s fundraising. Up went her national media profile. Up went an ad called “Our Turn” with this effective messaging from her campaign: “We have to fix our broken politics―and that starts by rejecting the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose.”
Oops. As is always the case with both parties’ governing classes, you win some and you lose some. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acquired his current job title by mobilizing against iffy candidates in the 2014 GOP primaries after watching his party flit away chances to win the majority in two previous election cycles. But he might have wanted to take a mulligan on his decision to go nuclear on Congressman Mo Brooks in the Alabama senatorial primary last year while leaving Roy Moore unscathed.
For Democrats, the problem is that progressives believe their party’s establishment is still living in the 1990s. The consultants and the apparatchiks are in too many cases slaves to the conventional wisdom that got Bill Clinton elected in a political climate where one might conceivably win running to the left of Barack Obama.
Indeed, Sanders’ campaign was less about Hillary than Bill and the business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council politics developed in response to electoral challenges their party faced in the 1980s. The Clintons won the nomination because Sanders was unable to make sufficient inroads in communities of color, but lost the election because in Trump they faced the one Republican willing to pull at neoliberalism’s loose threads.
By electing the Clinton-aligned Tom Perez as DNC chairman and then trying to strangle Moser’s campaign in the crib, Democrats are sending signals to the Resistance that they haven’t learned anything. This, along with overcrowded primaries and an unfriendly Senate map, ranks among the three biggest risks Democrats face in the otherwise highly favorable environment the president has gift-wrapped for them.
The new progressivism comes with risks of its own, which may yet become apparent after the midterm elections are over. But Democrats should sooner have their teeth pulled without anesthesia than live in the 2016 primaries forever.
James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?