Barack Obama’s political legacy may be the dismantling of the party’s center.
WSJ By Kimberley A. Strassel, Jan. 14, 2016 6:58 p.m. ET
You might not know it, but the Democratic Party is in the middle of an internecine battle that potentially dwarfs that of conservatives.
On one side is a real but weakened mainstream Democratic movement that has its roots in Clinton centrism. On the other is a powerful, ascendant wing of impatient and slightly unhinged progressive activists. This split has been building for years, but The Donald has been so entertaining that few have noticed.
Now it’s getting hard to ignore. Polls this week show Bernie Sanders tying or beating Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. Put another way, a self-declared socialist, a man who makes many think of their crazy uncle Bob, is beating a woman who spent eight years planning this run, who is swimming in money, and who oversees the most powerful political machine in operation.
Some of Mrs. Clinton’s struggles are self-imposed. She’s a real-world, political version of Pig-Pen, trailing along her own cloud of scandal dust. Even Democrats who like her don’t trust her. And a lot of voters are weary or unimpressed by the Clinton name. For all the Democratic establishment’s attempts to anoint Mrs. Clinton—to shield her from debates and ignore her liabilities—the rank and file aren’t content to have their nominee dictated.
Especially because many of those rank and file belong to a rising progressive movement that has no time or interest in the old Clinton mold. Barack Obama’s biggest legacy may prove his dismantling of the Democratic center. He ran as a uniter, but he governed as a divisive ideologue and as a liberal, feeding new fervor in the progressive wing.
These progressives proved more eager than even the Republicans to steadily pick off Democratic moderates—and helped the GOP to decimate their ranks. The Democratic congressional contingent is now at its smallest size since before FDR. But boy is it pure, and it retains an unwavering belief that its path to re-election is to double down on the Obama agenda.
The president insists that financial institutions were entirely to blame for the 2008 crisis, and that government’s role is to transfer more from those greedy capitalist owners to poor Americans. Out of this class warfare came the likes of Occupy Wall Street, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and today a Sanders campaign that describes “wealth and income equality” as the great “moral issue” of our time.
Mrs. Warren, a progressive hero, went out of her way last week to praise the Sanders Wall Street “reform” plan. Even Joe Biden wanted in on the action, lauding Mr. Sanders and suggesting that Mrs. Clinton was still “relatively new” to the income-inequality debate. Hillary is stuck trying to explain why her campaign donations from bankers aren’t a disqualifier.
The president came to office claiming that climate change was one of the greatest threats to the world, and poured billions into subsidies and green slush funds. Out of this came a new breed of environmental activists with groups like 350.org, who chain themselves to buildings and call for the immediate end of all fossil fuel use, as well as a new breed of billionaire enthusiasts like Tom Steyer. This crew views even the Sierra Club as a sellout. Mrs. Clinton is left trying to explain her former support for the Keystone XL pipeline, and vowing she’ll never be so rational again.
Mr. Obama came to office on hopes that he’d heal lingering racial divides. Instead his Justice Department accused Republicans of using voter ID laws to “suppress” minorities, and stoked anger over policing tactics. We now have a Black Lives Matter campaign and campus protests that demand apologies and new black hiring quotas. Mr. Sanders includes a standard meditation on police brutality and racial inequality in all his stump speeches.
These movements and activists (who also embrace the gun debate, and the women’s-rights debate, and socialized health-care debate) are now the beating heart of the Democratic Party. And they are rallying around Mr. Sanders. MoveOn.org has endorsed Bernie. The liberal Nation magazine has endorsed him. Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org, has endorsed him. Jodie Evans, the co-founder of the antiwar group Codepink has endorsed him. Celebrity activists like Susan Sarandon and Mark Ruffalo are feeling the Bern.
Mrs. Clinton keeps insisting that she’s not “nervous at all” about the nomination. She should be. True, Mrs. Clinton has a powerful organization and strengths, and she is lurching left to capture these new progressive voters. But the blunt reality is that the Democratic Party, of which the Clintons have long been the titular heads, isn’t really their party any more.