Michael Tomasky is a Special Correspondent for The Daily Beast, the Editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. His book If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed, and How It Might Be Saved will be published in paperback in June. (March 2020)
It may well be that by November 2020, the American people will have learned enough about Trump’s corrupt and unethical acts as president that a majority will vote for anyone running against him. But assuming that Trump is still in office, the question of the election will be: Can any of the Democrats recreate and energize the Obama coalition? All of them have talents and strengths—but all come up short with crucial elements of it.
There is a growing schism in the Democratic Party between its two poles of influence in the age of social media: the younger, urban, and more left-leaning people who carry out a daily and often pestiferous political dialogue on Twitter, and the older and more traditionally liberal-to-moderate people who make up the actual backbone of the party across America. If there is a division within the party that will bring it to ruin in 2020, this is it. Both factions reflect the seriousness of the fight to define the party anew as it crawls out of the Clinton “New Democrat” era in search of some as-yet-unnamed identity. I think both more or less agree on the problems: the recent failure of American capitalism to provide the more broadly shared prosperity we once enjoyed, the crisis facing our democracy and institutions under Trump, and the depraved authoritarianism of the Republican Party. But Democrats are quite divided on the solutions.
Lately, Barack Obama doesn’t look like such a bad poker player. Roundly criticized for “negotiating with himself” before the Republicans even got to the table on the tax compromise—and for the Democrats’ abysmal showing in the midterm elections—the president can now claim a head-turning sequence of out-of-nowhere legislative victories: the long-sought repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, the approval of the New Start treaty with Russia, and, on Wednesday afternoon, a bill extending health coverage benefits for rescue workers and others who got sick in the 9/11 aftermath. Republicans had invested much time and energy in blocking all of them, and very few Democrats in Washington would have been willing to predict two weeks ago that any of these measures would pass.
Many reasons have been served up to explain the Democrats’ dismal withdrawal of the energy bill last week: the President was too reticent about fighting climate change; they failed to drum up sufficient public support; they let too many other things take precedence on the legislative agenda. But one reason towers above all others—the dysfunctionality of the Senate.
The speed and certainty with which the conventional wisdom in Washington flips can be a comical thing to watch. A mere forty-eight hours ago, Barack Obama was a struggling president, even a likely one-termer. Today, in the wake of the House’s narrow passage of the health-reform bill—which is to say, on the strength of a grand total of four votes, which if cast the other way would have ensured reform’s defeat—he’s suddenly once again a political mastermind and one of the most consequential presidents of the last half-century!