Pelosi, AOC, Trump, Bannon—and the Stakes

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

For the moment, Trump has given Democrats a common target and a respite in the infighting. 

For the moment, Trump’s racist tweets have produced the one thing that Democrats couldn’t muster in their destructive infighting last week—party unity. But will it last?

And was Trump crazy to make himself and his racist comments the issue and divert the spotlight from the increasingly personal feud between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and AOC’s Squad of four? Or was he crazy like a fox?

That verdict, I think, will ultimately be up to the Democrats. For now, there is unity and a merciful break from the infighting, as well as a president on the defensive with all but his hardest core base.

The House will vote tonight on resolution of condemnation, putting Republican members in a splendidly awkward position.

Pelosi termed Trump’s remarks xenophobic and disgusting. Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, declared, “We’ll stay focused on our agenda and we won’t get caught slipping, because all of this is a distraction.”

Yet the bitterness between the AOC Squad and Pelosi may only be dormant, and it reflects a deeper set of schisms that could be disastrous to Democrats in 2020. The divisions include the continuing primary challenges of Justice Democrats to centrist Democratic incumbents, as well as deep differences over principles and tactics, as in the fight over whether to kill the funding for border security in the absence of provisions to mandate improved conditions.

At the center of much of this infighting is race and identity, and the schisms reverberate in odd ways. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are furious at primary challenges to their members by the party left.

These differences have been compounded by disparaging personal comments on both sides of the argument. In Pelosi’s interview with Maureen Dowd, she trained her fire on the Squad rather than on the centrist Democrats who opted to vote with Trump against the majority caucus position on border conditions.

AOC’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, had likened centrist Democrats who voted for the border measure to old-fashioned Southern segregationists. His tweets violated a longstanding House norm that staff doesn’t criticize other members. The House leadership then retaliated with its own insulting tweet, accusing Chakrabarti of racism for “singling out a Native American woman of color,” Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas.

One person wins from this slugfest of Democrats accusing each other of racism. His name is Donald Trump.

By fishing in the Democrats’ troubled waters, Trump is repeating the playbook of Steve Bannon, which is to keep the focus of American politics on race—both as a way of rallying his own base and making Democrats emphasize race at the expense of more unifying issues. As Bannon told me in the interview that led to his being fired,

The Democrats—the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.

That was true in 2016, and it’s true today. The 2016 election was a disaster because Hillary Clinton was a Wall Street candidate disguised as an identity candidate. Neither part of that combo was sufficient to get her elected. Running as the woman who would break the glass ceiling, she managed to lose a majority of the white women’s vote.

In 2020, the opportunity is very different. Two of the leading candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, are women. One is multi-racial. The other is superb at discussing America’s unfinished racial justice agenda, in ways that build bridges between working class whites and the multi-racial rainbow. Neither has Hillary Clinton’s baggage.

If the party stays focused on the myriad issues where public opinion is on the progressive side, the party will win in 2020. But the promise of the Democrats’ presidential candidates are at risk at being swamped by the infighting elsewhere in the party, and by Trump’s use of race and racism to bring out his own base and keep Democrats focused on race in ways that divide rather than unite them.

I’d like to see a unity press conference, featuring Pelosi, others in the House leadership, plus AOC and her Squad. I’d like to see all the fire directed at Trump, and some message discipline. Maybe this can be brokered by one of the senior progressive women in Congress, or by one of the progressive freshmen women who has chosen not to join in the mutual attacks. (I’d also like a pony for Christmas.)

For the moment, Trump has given Democrats a common target and a respite in the infighting. The Democrats would do well to keep their focus on all that unites them, and on Trump. The divisions within the party are not going away, but maybe at least the Democrats can damp down the Twitter war and the sniping in their own ranks, and remember the stakes for 2020.

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