COMMENTARY: There is no Democratic civil war


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new heroine of the Democratic Party left, is a virtual cinch to win her election to the House from New York City this fall. So she’s already expanded her campaign beyond Queens and the Bronx, hoping to change the face of her party by electing more progressives.

Last month, Ocasio-Cortez traveled to Kansas and Missouri with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to campaign for progressive House candidates. And she issued a nationwide slate of endorsements — call it Alexandria’s List — that includes three insurgents who are trying to topple Democratic incumbents in Congress just as she unseated Rep. Joe Crowley last month. “We’re building a movement,” she proclaimed.

That bit of chutzpah from a not-yet-elected 28-year-old drew grousing from Democratic elders. “She ain’t gonna make friends that way,” warned Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

And it set off speculation from political reporters that the Democrats might provide some new drama this election year by reviving the blood feud between those who backed Sanders in 2016 and those who favored Hillary Clinton.

But that hasn’t happened. Democrats may be locked in a struggle for the soul of their party, but that’s been true in almost every election cycle since 1828. What’s striking this time is how strangely polite they’re being to each other, beginning with Ocasio-Cortez.

“I am absolutely proud to be a Democrat,” she said after her primary win. “The Democratic Party is a big tent, and there are so many ways to be a Democrat.”

Asked by a reporter whether she plans to support Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the Democrats’ leader in the House next year, Ocasio-Cortez diplomatically ducked the question.

“I’m not going to get bogged down in Democratic infighting,” she said in an interview with Jacobin, a socialist magazine. “Not because I’m trying to do the establishment a favor, but because we have a movement to build.”

Pelosi has tried to be welcoming, too.

“I had the privilege of speaking to one of our newer members who was elected in that district — Alexandria,” Pelosi said last month. “She was lovely.”

Civil war? Not even close.

“When Democrats have a civil war, we do it right,” said Ann Lewis, a former aide to Bill and Hillary Clinton. “This year, we’re not out trying to destroy each other; we’ve just got disagreements about policy.”

The big reason the Democrats’ rival camps are trying to play well with each other is that they all agree on their top priorities: to regain the House this year and oust President Donald Trump in 2020.

And establishment Democrats say there’s at least one thing they like about the progressive insurgency: the enthusiasm it’s engendered among disaffected younger voters, who otherwise might not turn out to vote in midterm elections.

“Energy, enthusiasm, a surge of new people: Those are all good things,” Lewis said.

There’s another reason establishment Democrats have reacted to the progressive insurgency with relative equanimity: The left isn’t winning all that many battles.

The number of Democratic incumbents who have lost their seats in Congress to progressive insurgents in this year’s primaries adds up to exactly one: Crowley, the inattentive fellow who lost to Ocasio-Cortez.

That’s not a socialist wave. It’s more like a ripple.

Scholars at the Brookings Institution have compiled nationwide numbers on this year’s House primaries. So far, they reported, 88 establishment Democrats have won nomination, compared with 64 progressives (and some of those progressives had the establishment’s blessing).

The left’s record so far “is good but not great,” the Brookings scholars concluded.

But they also noted an accompanying trend that may shape the party’s future: More progressives ran this year than ever before.

“For most of them, this was their first primary, and it’s not surprising if they didn’t do very well,” Elaine Kamarck, the study’s lead author, told me. “But if they stay in the process and run again, we could be seeing a generational change that moves the party to the left.”

That’s happening in terms of policy, as well. Candidates like Ocasio-Cortez have helped make once-edgy ideas like single-payer health insurance and tuition-free public college central to the Democrats’ conversation about the future.

Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet, that’s one reason she ran.

“A major point of my campaign: In the safest blue seats in America, we should have leaders swinging for the most ambitious ideas possible for working-class Americans,” she wrote. “You’re largely not going to get gutsy risk-taking from swing-district seats.”

Can the Democrats navigate generational change without flying apart? Can they pitch a tent big enough to include democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and backcountry centrists like Joe Manchin of West Virginia?

The real test will come in the presidential primaries of 2020, when candidates will have an incentive to attack each others’ credentials — just as, in 2016, Sanders aides used words like “corrupt” and “obscene” to describe Hillary Clinton’s fundraising. That battle begins the morning after the midterm elections, only three months away.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. This was published by the Tribune News Service. Contact him at [email protected]