The contest for control of the Democratic Party between left and center is continuing apace. The latest battleground is over a handful of minority Democrats being groomed by the centrist establishment to run for office: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
If the center wants to win over a suspicious left, they can start by clearly explaining their policy orientation, particularly in areas where they might have fallen short by the supposed standards of the modern Democratic Party — which all three of the above candidates have done in various ways. If they want to deepen divisions, they can use cynical accusations of bigotry to try to beat back any leftist challenger.
Let's take each in turn. The former attorney general of California, Harris is mistrusted by the left mostly because of her roots as a prosecutor. The Black Lives Matter movement has put anyone with law enforcement history under close scrutiny, and California's criminal justice system is notoriously brutal (though it has improved recently). While she is obviously no Jeff Sessions, Harris has sometimes displayed a rather Hillary Clinton-esque tendency to say the right thing but not follow through in a vigorous way. Most notoriously, she refused to prosecute Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's old company OneWest for numerous instances of almost certain illegal foreclosure, against the advice of her own Consumer Law Section, and has so far refused to say why. (She was also the only Senate Democratic candidate to get a donation from Mnuchin himself in 2016.)
Booker is mistrusted because of his ties to Wall Street. Most notoriously, when President Obama attacked Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign for his long career as a bloodsucking financial parasite, buying up companies only to strip their assets and drive them into bankruptcy, Booker defended Bain Capital on Meet the Press. Why? Because New Jersey is just across the river from Manhattan and both parties are drowning in Wall Street cash.
Patrick is least trusted of all because he actually works for Bain Capital as a managing director. If he were to run for president, as Obama's inner circle is apparently urging him to, President Trump would just have to copy-paste Obama's 2012 ads.
In other words, there are quite substantive reasons why a leftist might not trust any of those candidates. The probably accurate perception that all three candidates are being groomed by the same big-money donors that clustered around Hillary Clinton will only deepen the divide, because it suggests that — like pro-union rules, or the public option in ObamaCare — any adoption of Sanders-style proposals are mostly bait to be cast aside when it comes time to actually pass something.
If they want to win over the left — and Harris, who has expressed at least mild support for tuition-free public college (for families with income less than $140,000), a $15 minimum wage, expanded Social Security, and Medicare for all, would probably be the most credible person to attempt this — they need to first explain their recent history.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, they need to make a symbolic rhetorical break with the despised donor class. The left generally likes Elizabeth Warren because she ferociously criticizes Wall Street and corporate abuse. Adopting a harsh anti-economic elite line will reassure young Sanders Democrats that anti-establishment policies aren't just window dressing. Meanwhile, steps like refusing to take PAC money and running mostly on small donors will signal independence from the donor class (and as Sanders discovered, might actually lead to a gusher of campaign cash).
But if they just want to have a retread of the 2015-16 primary, the center could just try to win dirty. The left, they might say (working hand-in-glove with sympathetic columnists), just doesn't like minority or female candidates because they are racist and sexist.
I would bet quite a lot of money the centrist Democratic establishment will opt for the latter strategy. Indeed, some are already doing so — like Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress, elite Democrats' in-house think tank.
That would be pretty rich coming from the crowd that shamelessly leveraged Islamophobia to keep Keith Ellison — probably the left's second-most trusted politician, after Bernie Sanders — out of the chair of the Democratic National Committee.(Update: Neera Tanden contacted us after this story was published and asked that we clarify that she personally defended Keith Ellison from these attacks.) Indeed, in other forums the left is simultaneously being criticized for being too sympathetic to radical Muslim and black activists. On Tuesday the neoconservative Bari Weiss lambasted leftists for, among other things, associating with the Muslim activist Linda Sarsour (for being anti-Zionist) and cast their praise of the exiled black radical Assata Shakur as love of a cop-killer — conveniently neglecting to mention that the reason people support her is their belief that she was framed for the murder.
That extraordinarily cheap attack at least has the actual history of social justice activism straight, in which the left has long been leading the charge and centrists following (often very far) behind.
At any rate, if I had to guess, I'd say we're in for a rather bitter fight for supremacy over the Democratic Party between big money elites on one side and Sanders Democrats on the other. But for actual individuals like Harris, it's worth considering the extremely weakened state of the party elite compared to 2013. Clinton's defeat completely shattered the elite's reputation for competence, and they will have a much harder time beating back a left-wing challenger in 2020. Even on purely tactical grounds, it probably makes more sense to permanently throw one's lot in with the left.