Commentary on Dem moderates vs. liberals split

WASHINGTON — As contenders line up for the 2020 presidential nomination, the Democratic Party is in a quandary over the rise of ultra-progressivism in its ranks.

The party of FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ, Clinton and Obama has generally flown under banner of liberalism. But it has also included many middle-roaders who have shied away from the “leftist” label that conservative Republicans have hung on them. The GOP itself is similarly tagged by Democrats as “right wing.”

This clash of ideological definitions has evolved even as President Trump has dusted off the old Republican bugaboo of “socialism” as the first cousin of communism. It’s a thinly veiled and simplistic attack on the social safety net that for years has been at the heart of the Democrats’ domestic agenda.

Trump has artfully glommed onto the second presidential candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as a “democratic socialist,” seeing him as an easy target. The president harkens back to the days of the late red-baiting Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. Never mind that such staples of American life as Social Security and Medicare are now widely accepted by our citizenry.

With the rapid expansion of women voters, the young, people of color and the foreign-born, the Democratic Party has become more a haven for progressives championing that governmental social agenda.

Several young presidential candidates have emerged challenging Sanders’s mantle as the hero of the political left.

This development has led to a coalescing of moderate Democrats looking toward the 2020 election for a standard bearer of their own ilk.

It’s reminiscent of the party’s nomination of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who went on to win the general election but was beaten in 1980 by conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

Today, the polls for 2020 have former vice president Joe Biden, long known as a liberal, now cast as the moderate front-runner, slightly ahead of Sanders as the favored progressive in the party. It’s an ironic situation, with these two septuagenarian males vying for the nomination of a political pack now bulging with much younger female competitors and millennials, all yearning for “a fresh face” to lead the country out of the autocratic Trump morass.

In these circumstances, Biden’s political reputation as a liberal is being challenged by progressives and others in print for his outspoken opposition in the in the 1970s to mandatory school busing in his state of Delaware. That experiment of moving white students to predominantly black-populated public schools was highly controversial, and produced mixed results.

More than 40 years later, Biden will carry a generally well-established liberal or progressive identification into the 2020 race with arguably a moderate label as well, compared to Sanders and the many younger contenders for the party nomination.

On the surface, this posture may not be a bad one to bring to the competition for the Democratic nomination, giving Biden the credentials to appeal to both the middle and the left of his party.

In a general election against Trump, Biden’s executive experience as an eight-year vice president to whom serious domestic and foreign policy responsibilities were assigned by President Barack Obama, would be a strong selling point.

Biden wrote in 2015, in contemplating a 2016 presidential run he never made, that he would have done so as a unifying force, against partisan division and as an advocate of a level playing field for the middle class. “I believe we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country, and I think we can,” he wrote then, even before Trump emerged.

“It’s mean-spirited. It’s petty,” he continued. “And it’s gone on for much too long. I don’t believe we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition, not our enemies. And for the sake of the country, we have to work together.”

In the age of Trump, such sentiments may come off as wishful thinking. But for an old Democratic liberal needing the support of moderates and progressives together, it may well prove to be an attractive opening appeal.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.