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100 Zephyrs: Why the Left Must Challenge Corporate Democrats

If there is no pressure from the left, political debate will continue to shift ever rightward, just as it has under Bill Clinton and during Obama’s first term.

Writing on our blog and in Real Clear Politics, my Campaign for America’s Future colleague Bill Scher dismisses Zephyr Teachout’s call for progressive primary challenges against conservative Democrats. Scher argues the left should focus instead on “gaining influence without launching a civil war,” arguing that “unlike the dynamic in the Republican Party, disagreements within the Democratic family are not debilitating.”

This idea has been raised before: that infighting between the party’s left and right wings are nothing more than a set of relatively minor policy differences within the “Democratic family” (to use Scher’s words), and that they’re best solved with genteel discussion and issue-oriented campaigns rather than “war”-like primary challenges.

It’s an attractive vision. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong.

To be fair, Scher doesn’t question the right of progressives to mount primary challenges. But he argues that is not “strategically correct” to do so. Is he right? Let’s look at the arguments one by one.

My Purist Can Beat Your Purist

Scher points to the GOP’s “low-grade civil war between purists and pragmatists” and suggests that this has “severely hampered the party’s effort to rehabilitate its brand.” Primary challenges, he argues, would similarly harm Democrats.

But Republican and Democratic Party “purists” are not the same. Tea Party extremists are peddling an unpopular ideology that voters have rejected again and again. The GOP can’t “rehabilitate its brand” because its internal challengers forced it to offer a stronger dose of the same foul medicine.

Unlike Tea Partiers, polls show that Democratic/left “purists” hold views that are extremely popular with voters. For example: Likely voters want to expand Social Security, and they want to raise taxes on millionaires to pay for it. What’s more, they hold that position in overwhelming numbers – numbers that include 90 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans.

As a quick review of shows, voters also strongly prefer the “progressive” position on a wide range of economic issues that includes job creation, infrastructure repair, the minimum wage, corporate taxation, student debt, bank regulation (and banker prosecution), raising taxes on the wealthy, and reducing the role of money in government itself.

Comparisons between the Tea Party and progressives are therefore misguided. The GOP’s challengers have moved their party away from the majority, while progressive Democratic challengers would move their party toward it. That would help, not hurt, its electoral prospects.

(And about that word, “purists”: it’s rather pejorative. And yet we find that it’s used quite often in Democratic Party circles, especially under circumstances where the word “base” might be more appropriate.)

Winning Positions

Primary challenges are likely to result in candidates who are more progressive – either because the challenger unseated the incumbent or because the incumbent was moved to the left, as was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. That’s a good thing, because it will lead the Democratic Party away from the unpopular “centrist” positions of the Clinton/Obama wing. (That’s the well-heeled faction that has offered to cut Social Security and has treated Wall Street with kid gloves.) And it will force the party to adopt positions that are strategically smarter.

Two tactics, more than any others, win elections. Parties must first increase turnout among their base voters. Progressive positions on issues like Social Security and student debt would accomplish that. Secondly, parties must appeal to undecided voters. The importance of this is often exaggerated by corporation-friendly Democrats, especially when they they want to claim that they must tack right to appeal to undecideds, but it’s still important.

We know that in many cases the “progressive” economic position is preferred by voters across the political spectrum. (Again, see Populist Majority for more.) Challenges that move the party in a progressive direction will therefore help it with both of these key objectives, by exciting the base while at the same time making it more attractive to Republicans and independents.

Remembering Lincoln

Scher mentions Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who lost a general election after being challenged unsuccessfully in the primary. But there is no compelling evidence that Lincoln lost because she was primaried – and none at all to indicate that she lost because she adopted more progressive positions.

We do know that Sen. Lincoln pushed forcefully for an amendment to the Dodd/Frank financial reform bill. The “Lincoln Amendment” prevents financial institutions from accessing favorable Federal Reserve credit if they conduct credit swaps. While it’s not perfect, this amendment made the bill stronger – and there are many who attribute Lincoln’s change of heart to a primary challenge from the left.

Score one for primaries.

When the Going Gets Nasty, the Nasty Get Going

Scher also argues that Democrats “have suffered the consequences of failed primary challenges themselves,” pointing to the 2006 attempt to defeat Joe Lieberman. It’s true that Lieberman lost the Democratic primary before ultimately winning the general election that year – but a battalion of senior party heavyweights, including Bill Clinton, stepped in on his behalf.

Lieberman’s was an exceptional case. The election was largely driven by the surprising weakness of his Democratic challenger, while any vindictive after-effects can be attributed his own singularly unappealing personality.

Besides, do we really know that Lieberman wouldn’t have become precisely the irritant he became had he gone unchallenged in the primary? After all, his obstructionist impact on Obama’s most important first-term legislation was indistinguishable from that of other Blue Dog Democrats.

There is a compelling case to be made, in fact, for arguing that the left should have challenged more of Lieberman’s “centrist” colleagues. Such challenges might have made the two key pieces of legislation from Obama’s first term – the Affordable Care Act and Dodd/Frank – more progressive than they ultimately became.

Zephyr Wins

Then there is the example of Zephyr Teachout herself. Scher describes her primary challenge to Cuomo as “a losing campaign,” but that misses the big picture. Cuomo treated the left with lordly contempt during his last term, a stance that rendered him indistinguishable from most of his fellow corporatist Democrats. (Remember when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called progressives “f**kin’ retards” — and President Obama never chided him for it?)

Cuomo’s attitude changed when progressives became a serious threat to his plans. Teachout’s candidacy, together with the threat of losing the Working Families Party line on the ballot, forced Cuomo to make significant commitments to the left. New York’s ballot rules are unusual, but Cuomo’s concession can be taken as another policy victory for progressive challengers.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Cuomo will honor those commitments. But if he welshes on a public pledge, it certainly can’t be argued that a softer approach would’ve been more successful.

Familiarity breeds contempt, as Emanuel’s insult demonstrated. One of the lessons from the Cuomo challengers is this: Pushback can generate more respectful attention for the left.

Run, lefties, run.

Scher is at his most persuasive when he is arguing that, despite their own occasionally fatalistic perceptions, progressives “already possess a significant amount of influence within the Democratic Party.” He’s right about that, and progressives would do well to remember that more often. But, contra Scher, the differences within the Democratic Party can be quite acrimonious at times.

Scher is also right that outside campaigns have a powerful effect. Occupy Wall Street accomplished much more in its short public life to change Democratic Party positions, at least rhetorically, than most intraparty efforts have done. Latino and gay rights groups have also successfully pressured the party from without.

But such campaigns aren’t rooted in party politics, and it’s not an “either/or” discussion. For those who want to change the party from within, which is an important task, primaries are a powerful tool.

There’s still no evidence that the Democratic Party’s top elected officials or their advisors take the left seriously. Only pressure will move them beyond the entrenched economic positions many of them hold. What’s more, the ability of the left to influence elected Democrats won’t matter if Democrats don’t get elected. Progressive influence must be felt before a general election, not just afterwards, to move them toward more popular positions and therefore toward greater electability.

If there is no pressure from the left, political debate will continue to shift ever rightward, just as it has under Bill Clinton and during Obama’s first term. Without that pressure, important policy options will go unmentioned, depriving the public of the policy debate it needs and deserves. The only way to prevent this rightward drift is by forcing “centrist” Democrats to discuss progressive ideas they’d rather ignore. Primary challenges are a critical part of that effort.

Elected Democrats must understand that a betrayal of their principles will have consequences for their electoral futures. There may be cases where a primary is ill-advised. But we need hundreds of Zephyr Teachouts, ready to challenge straying Democrats when they break their campaign promises, shift their allegiances to the corporate “dark side,” or forget to “dance with the ones who brought ‘em.”

You can call that “civil war” if you like. I prefer the term “democracy.”

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