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“A Stark Difference”: Republicans Fear Their Activist Base. Democrats Don’t

We’ve gotten so used to Republican infighting over the last few years that it would have been easy to forget that historically it’s the Democrats who have been the most consumed by internecine arguments. Over the weekend we got a reminder, as a group of protesters disrupted a forum at the Netroots Nation gathering of liberal activists where Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley were speaking. By all accounts, neither Sanders nor O’Malley handled it particularly well.

But if we look at this event in combination with what’s happening on the Republican side, we can see the stark differences in the relationship of each side’s base, its activists, and its candidates.

If you want a moment-by-moment account of the event, I’d recommend this one from Eclectablog or Dara Lind’s insightful analysis of the different forces at play. If the protesters wanted to make the point that Sanders in particular is not spending enough time talking about racial injustice, then he did their work for them by reacting in a somewhat combative way and trying to forge ahead with what he wanted to say about economics. But it’s hard to avoid this question: Is Bernie Sanders the guy you want to be protesting? To what end?

I say that not because Sanders has a strong record on civil rights, though he does. And if the complaint is that Sanders isn’t talking about race as much as he could, well that’s true, too. The truth is that however good his intentions, Bernie Sanders is a longtime Democratic politician who has never really needed the support of the single most important Democratic constituency, African-Americans. He represents the whitest state in the union — only one percent of Vermonters are black. So he may not have the instinctive feel for what African-Americans care about that another politician who had of necessity spent years courting them and working with them would have developed.

But you know who does have that instinctive feel? Hillary Clinton. She spent her political life in Arkansas and New York, where there are plenty of African-Americans. She’s spent more Sundays in black churches than you can count. Toni Morrison famously called her husband the first black president. Yes, there was plenty of tension and ill feelings when black voters left her and got behind Barack Obama in 2008, but I promise you that they’ll be with her in 2016.

But Clinton didn’t attend Netroots Nation this year, and Sanders and O’Malley did, so they’re the ones who got protested, for little reason other than the fact that they were handy. And while they suffered some discomfort, one thing the protesters weren’t demanding was that Democrats vote against either one of them in the primaries. In fact, I’m sure that if you asked the protesters what primary voters should do, they’d say that it’s not their real concern — elections aren’t the point.

Which is where the contrast with Republicans couldn’t be more stark. The Tea Party started just as much as a movement of self-styled outsiders, but unlike activists on the left, they pursued an inside strategy from the outset, one focused clearly on elections. They saw the path to achieving their goals running through Congress and the White House, and they all but took over their party by mounting successful primary challenges to Republican incumbents. How many prominent Democratic incumbents have faced the same kind of strong grassroots challenge from the left in recent years? There was Joe Lieberman, who was beaten in the 2006 Democratic primary in Connecticut by Ned Lamont. But apart from a backbench House member here and there, that’s about it.

In contrast, Republican activists have gotten one prominent scalp after another, from incumbent senators like Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett to important House members like Eric Cantor. The result is that Republican politicians regard their base with barely-disguised terror. You can see it in how they’ve approached Donald Trump, a spectacular buffoon who has tied the party in knots. Even when he was saying one bigoted thing after another about the demographic group the party desperately needs if it’s ever to win back the White House, his opponents stepped gingerly around him, lest they offend his supporters. It was only after Trump’s remarks about John McCain’s war record (which, frankly, he sort of got baited into making) gave them an excuse removed from any policy area that most of them finally started criticizing him.

Even if Trump pulled out of the race tomorrow (sorry, Republicans, no such luck), the rest of the candidates would still operate from fear of their base, which means that activist conservatives will be able to extract commitments from the candidates on the issues that they care about. You can argue that in the long run this hurts the GOP by radicalizing the party and making its presidential candidates unelectable, and you’d probably be right, but in the short run, it probably feels to those conservative activists like success.

The situation on the Democratic side isn’t the same at all. The activists involved in Black Lives Matter and similar efforts would say that they don’t want just to become players in the Democratic Party, because they’re looking to create change on entrenched issues with roots that go back centuries. And they might be right that an outside strategy will be more effective at achieving that change than a strategy focused on making gains within the party. After all, you can argue that while tea partiers have almost taken over the GOP, they’ve gotten very little of the substantive change they wanted — the Affordable Care Act lives, Barack Obama got reelected, and history keeps marching forward despite their efforts, even if they’ve managed to stop things like comprehensive immigration reform.

On the other hand, circumstances will eventually produce another Republican president, even if it isn’t next year or four years after that. And when that president gets elected, the conservative activists will come to collect on the commitments he made.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, July 20, 2015

July 23, 2015 - Posted by | Democrats, Netroots Nation, Republicans | , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. If the Tea Party had not been funded by the Koch Brothers for their use, it would have died off several years ago. When Ted Cruz was shutting down the government to the dismay of his GOP colleagues, I saw an article that the Koch Brothers were about to cut TPers loose. Then Obama gave them a gift with the botched rollout of Obamacare and they remained afloat. As an Independent, I find the TP on the wrong side of most issues except one – the deficit, yet they took one of the tools away and that is revenue increase as well as selective cuts .

    Like

    Comment by btg5885 | July 24, 2015 | Reply

  2. I respectfully disagree that the Democrat party doesn’t fear their base. Take a look at Bernie Sanders effect.

    Like

    Comment by lrfalstad | July 23, 2015 | Reply

  3. Hillary to African-Americans…. ” Come to Mama ” .

    Like

    Comment by renxkyoko | July 23, 2015 | Reply


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