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The 2020 Candidates Bring a Lame Game

Joe Biden,. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris on last night's Democratic debate in Miami. (MSNBC/You Tube screenshot)

For all the chaos of American politics right now, both sides are not equal. Despite the recent Ahmari-French debate, despite the odd couple nature of fusionist conservatism, despite the populist wave against “the establishment,” the Republican Party led by President Trump has been much more effective at corralling dissent and providing cover for its disparate elements than the Democratic Party. Trump has served as a symbolic avatar for the GOP’s “further right” constituents even while failing to truly enact any of the main policies they elected him for, whereas the left of the Democratic Party has real political power and is determined to use it—if not to win then at least to sabotage those whom they consider too far to the center.

The Republican Party’s success in railroading rebel elements is twofold. In terms of the voting public, it’s meant creating an ideological environment where those who probably wouldn’t agree on much cast ballots for the same party without thinking twice. In terms of politicians, it’s meant guiding even those who don’t agree towards a more or less favorable disposition and voting pattern. The GOP has managed to create an atmosphere of inevitability and in doing so has become a daunting machine that takes internal opposition and steamrolls it into a giant, unified political and social product.

On the politician side, the about-face of Senator Lindsey Graham serves as a prime example. Despite a barrage of strong statements against Trump during the last election, Graham is now a dedicated cheerleader for the president who half the time sounds like Rudy Giuliani. Senator Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is hesitant to do more than intone about the “deeply troubling” nature of Trump’s Ukraine phone call. But he still isn’t a real threat to party unity because he offers no genuinely competitive ideological vision apart from speaking more nicely and not constantly doing wildly stupid, self-sabotaging things.

Yet for all these stands, the Republican Party has been brutally efficient at getting members to fall in line, which is particularly impressive (or obtuse, depending on your view) given the erratic and contradictory actions of Trump. To be sure, some real internal disputes do exist on matters of trade and foreign policy. Nonetheless, the GOP has managed to successfully sidle towards Trump’s vague nationalism and nativism without letting its internal disagreements become particularly significant or divisive to voters.

It’s an entirely different story for the Democrats. Their divisions are not built around personality or values rhetoric or degrees of scale, but around hard policy. The Democrats have fundamental and publicly visible disagreements over health care, foreign policy, taxes, and immigration, to name only a few. The wings of the Democratic Party—and its voting blocs—are so far apart that the very idea of them being in the same coalition is crumbling. From wildly different receptions of an off-color joke by Joe Biden to Dianne Feinstein’s dismissive reaction to young climate activists crowding outside her office, the old Democratic Party and the new woke Democratic Party are miles apart.

The Bernie and AOC faction is plainly at odds with the Biden and Pelosi faction. The Justice Democrat movement spearheaded by Cenk Uygur and left-wing commentator Kyle Kulinski is not onboard with the corporate Democratic agenda. And social democrats in Congress don’t bother with the niceties of the Hill. No matter how skillfully the Democratic National Committee tries to paper over it or how often the Biden wing parrots far left talking points on gender, abortion, and LGBT issues that don’t cost them a thing and make good buzzwords in campaign ads, the Democratic Party is more like a sprawling carnival than a big tent. Which wing you think is the freak show depends upon your beliefs, but there’s no doubt that the encore featuring everyone up on the main stage isn’t convincing anyone. Heck, some members of Biden’s own family even voted for Trump in 2016. How are you supposed to have party unity when you don’t even have family unity?

Will impeachment inquiries really be enough to defibrillate the Democratic Party? Every time Trump does some new outrageous thing, the Democrats pounce in concert with media reports—or, in this latest case, slightly ahead of them. The indignation, the breathless anger, the shock, the press conferences: it’s the last thing that brings a party together. Yet no matter how many times the last straw is drawn, it turns out not to be the last straw. “We hate Trump and he is very bad” didn’t work in 2016 and it won’t work now. Even if Trump gets shown the door in some way or another (despite the Republican-run Senate?), his ouster won’t fix what’s wrong with the Democrats.

If anything, impeachment inquiries will serve only as a pause button on the constant exposure of Democrats’ internal divisions, not an actual solution. Biden is the ultimate centrist, and a rising number of independent and Democratic voters may well stay home rather than vote for him, even against Trump. The progressive, social democratic wing may not have a real way to stop Biden or his equivalent from becoming the nominee, but they can depress voter turnout on the left.

The silliness of arguing over Crowdstrike server conspiracies and an endless back-and-forth between Biden and Trump over what Hunter Biden did or did not do in Ukraine is superseded only by the silliness of the Democrats constantly trying the same political strategy and hoping for different results.

If Hillary Clinton couldn’t beat Trump in 2016, what does that say about her and her campaign? If the Democrats can’t achieve party unity in the face of Trump, what does that say about the extent of their internal contradictions? These are questions the Democrats are going to have to answer—and fast—if they want to do more than talk on TV.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.

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