Can Democrats win the primary, as it were, only to lose the general election?
That was the conceit the already overburdened Jeb Bush lugged with him into his ill-fated effort to wrest control of the Republican Party back from the tea party insurgents who had overtaken it. That was the generally accepted lesson of the last presidential election cycle, in which the conventional wisdom was that Mitt Romney had sought to appease an irascible segment of the GOP electorate in 2011 to the detriment of his viability in 2012. That remains a guiding principle among political commentators in media, and the press has not been shy about reminding GOP voters of what they are likely sacrificing by indulging their unrestrained ids.
Democrats are, however, usually spared this admonition from the usual suspects in the press. Perhaps it is because the GOP seems set on nominating its least electable candidate that Democrats are spared this rebuke. If so, that has served the Democratic Party’s progressive faction especially well. An unexpectedly vigorous challenge from Hillary Clinton’s left has already forced the likely Democratic nominee to humor the most imprudent impulses of her party’s progressive wing. What’s more, Clinton’s leftward drift is only going to get worse.
A dearth of reliable polling has led to quite a bit of speculation about whether or not the states that are set to vote on Tuesday might be more competitive than is now commonly presumed. According to FiveThirtyEight’s estimates, of all the states where a Democratic primary will take place (Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina), only Missouri is believed to be a competitive target for Bernie Sanders. So why isn’t the political universe girding itself for a series of landslide Clinton triumphs tonight? The former secretary of state was expected to easily sail to victory in Michigan, a state with a demographic makeup that closely resembles the party’s national electoral coalition in a microcosm, and Clinton lost. Not only did she lose, she underperformed her polls by over 20 points. In Michigan, Clinton lost among white women, voters age 18 to 44, college graduates, and among middle-income voters. According to exit polls, independents voted for Sanders to the tune of 71 to 28 percent.
Bernie Sanders could have another unexpectedly strong showing on Tuesday night, but even if he did it remains unlikely that he could win the vote share he needs now to amass enough delegates to secure the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination outright. That fact is going to make for some very sour Sanders-backing Democrats, and Clinton seems to be aware that her nomination may alienate some core members of her party’s electoral coalition. As early as last summer, Clinton made a calculated effort to appeal to the segment of her party that appears to equate centrism and triangulation with apostasy.
On the surface, you could be excused for thinking that Hillary Clinton is running for the White House on the promise of a restoration of Bill Clinton’s presidency. But save for all her gauzy and vague references to the glorious 1990s, Clinton is not quick with praise for her husband’s legacy. Hillary Clinton has campaigned against her husband’s presidency as the beginning of an era of “mass incarceration.” She has run against her husband’s record on AIDS-HIV, same-sex marriage, and equality laws. Hillary Clinton has declined to say whether she supports some of her husband’s most popular enduring accomplishments, including the bipartisan 1996 welfare reform law. And don’t get her started on the free trade agreement NAFTA.
That was before Bernie Sanders’ quixotic bid for the nomination of his adopted political party began to pick up steam. Since the summer, Hillary Clinton has continued to lurch gracelessly to the left with a perceptibly more passionate urgency. The former first lady promised to use executive authority to “end this epidemic of gun violence,” and she would decline to seek the authority of Congress in order to do so.
This isn’t the only area in which Clinton pledged to be even more scornful of the authority of a co-equal branch of government than even President Barack Obama. The former secretary contended that she would go even further than Obama in an effort to avoid enforcing existing immigration laws. That is, further than a president whose executive actions have been temporarily stayed by the courts due to their clear disregard for constitutional limits on the executive. Clinton has promised to pursue a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s illegal immigration population with no new existing border enforcement provisions. Not only that, but Clinton contends that she would end the practice of private detention for families and the deportation of illegal immigrants who are apprehended as a result of raids by law enforcement. Clinton is so comfortable with her new unapologetically liberal orientation, in fact, that she has pledged as president to “put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.”
If she were a Republican engaged in a similar display of pandering to a malcontented minority, most or even all of these appeals to the left wing of Hillary Clinton’s party would be considered imprudent. Perhaps it is the sense that Clinton’s general election opponent will be a crude figure, who has made a sport of saying boorish things about women and of alienating minority voters, that has made the left in America complacent about their chances in 2016. It is true that anyone who wins the nomination of a major American political party stands a good chance of winning the White House. Those who make that argument in Trump’s case, however, are forced to reinforce it by citing black swan events like a major terrorist event, another recession, or even Clinton’s indictment by Barack Obama’s justice department. Barring any of those paradigm-shifting events, the data is relatively clear that a Clinton-Trump race would yield a rout for the Republican nominee that would likely take the GOP’s congressional majorities down with him.
In the absence of another massive economic downturn or confidence-shattering bloodshed, the Republican Party is setting itself up to allow a sharply more progressive Hillary Clinton to saunter into the White House. Moreover, she would ascend to her seat behind the Resolute Desk with a mandate from the voters to pursue an even more liberal agenda than Barack Obama. No wonder Democrats can’t seem to lose the primary to win the general; at least, not if Donald Trump is the nominee.