Never has the world been so obsessively concerned with the inner workings and minor electoral battles of the U.S. Democratic Party. And no wonder: Never has the fate of the world, its physical safety and economic security, been so utterly dependent on one party’s ability to turn itself around, to undo the terrifying results of the 2016 election and achieve a congressional victory in November that might protect us all against the worst. This summer, we are all a Democratic Party campaign team.
And, like the party itself, we have wildly different ideas about the path to victory. We should pay close attention to surprise upsets, where a novel candidate has overturned electoral logic.
Recently, there have been two of those – with seemingly opposite conclusions to be drawn.
The first, on March 13, was the surprise victory, by 755 votes, of a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in a special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th district, a Republican-leaning Rust Belt constituency that had voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a 60-40 margin.
That candidate, former U.S. Marine and federal prosecutor Conor Lamb, won not so much by campaigning against his Republican opponent or against Mr. Trump, but by campaigning against his own party’s liberal elite.
In his key election ad, he denounced Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is the party’s leader in the House and a symbol of West Coast liberalism, declaring that he’d vote to replace her. In another ad, he fired an AR-15-style rifle and declared that he “loves to shoot.” He spoke favourably of Mr. Trump’s steel tariffs (but also supported unions). He is a Blue Dog Democrat, the party’s least liberal faction.
The party chose him for these reasons and threw millions into his campaign. They also chose him for less frequently mentioned reasons: He’s a white male. Voters in Rust Belt states who switched from the Democrats to Mr. Trump in 2016 told exit pollsters they found Hillary Clinton too liberal – but analysts believe that means many didn’t want a woman in power and had become uneasy with Barack Obama’s rainbow coalition.
So Mr. Lamb’s campaign didn’t mention Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. “I just say, usually, ’Look, I’m a Democrat because my grandfather was a Democrat, and he was because F.D.R. was.” In other words, he won by erasing his party’s diversity and campaigning against its liberalism.
This week, we saw another Democratic candidate win a surprise upset by campaigning against her own party’s liberalism. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Bronx bartender (and former staffer in the office of the late Senator Ted Kennedy) charmed and doorstepped her way to victory in the Democratic primary in New York’s safely Democratic 14th Congressional district.
She won by campaigning against incumbent Joe Crowley, a 10-term congressman who is one of the party’s great fundraisers and considered a backer of, and potential successor to, Ms. Pelosi.
But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez denounced her party’s liberalism from the left: A member of Democratic Socialists of America, she sees mere liberalism as insufficiently progressive, calling for public health care and gun control (in Canada, she wouldn’t stand out in the federal NDP or Liberals). She appealed to a widespread sense among urban Democrats that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been insufficiently progressive and had allowed Mr. Trump’s rise by compromising too much.
She also campaigned against her party’s lack of diversity, exclaiming in one interview “How is it that five Irish dudes just handed this seat to each other for the last 50 years?”
The liberal Democrat appears to be an endangered species, attacked from the right in Pennsylvania and from the left in New York City. In theory, this combination could work well for the party: It needs more radical, exciting candidates in safe urban districts to motivate established Democratic voters and stave off the threat of a third party to the left. And it needs more socially conservative (but fiscally progressive) candidates in the most hotly contested swing-state districts to grab back those decisive alienated voters.
That mix might work in November, 2018. The challenge will come in 2020, when the world’s most important decision will be the Democrats’ choice of a leader who can square the interests of Mr. Lamb’s party-switching whitebread voters and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s forward-thinking young urbanites and deliver a message that somehow speaks to both.
The party has found such uniters in the past – but it’s never done so under such urgent and fraught circumstances, with so much at stake for the entire world.