Steven V. Roberts

The Lessons of History

Two Democratic candidates for president pose a distinct threat to their party’s chances of defeating Donald Trump next year. One is Bernie Sanders, and the other is Elizabeth Warren.

Both represent the purist liberal wing of their party, a faction that has failed to elect a single president since the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. And with only 1 out of 4 Americans calling themselves liberals in the last election, the notion that a doctrinaire left-winger can win in 2020 is an exercise in self-delusion.

Two historical examples reinforce that argument. George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984 carried the liberal banner against incumbent Republicans and suffered historic defeats. Each won exactly one state.

Sanders says he is running to complete a “political revolution” he started in 2016, but at its core, this is not a revolutionary country. This is a moderate center-right country, and the only successful Democrats in the last half-century -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama -- ran on more pragmatic and less ideological platforms than the ones Sanders and Warren are advancing.

Moreover, those winning Democrats all understood the power of stories: the narratives candidates tell about who they are and how they connect to the values of their voters and the history of their nation. Sanders and Warren don’t tell stories; they offer countless policies and prescriptions, as if the candidate who authors the most 18-point programs will win the White House. Both work really hard at being humorless and irascible, as if they are constantly telling kids to get off their lawn.

Sanders is not even a Democrat, and his bitterness toward Hillary Clinton and the party apparatus after he lost the 2016 primary contributed substantially to Trump’s narrow victory. Clinton was correct when she wrote in her book “What Happened”: “His attacks caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign.”

Research by political scientist Brian Schaffner of the University of Massachusetts demonstrates the harm Sanders inflicted. More than 20 percent of his supporters declined to back the Democratic nominee, and in all three states that determined the election -- Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- the number of Berniecrats who voted Republican widely exceeded Trump’s victory margin.

Sanders is renewing his war on the Democrats he started in 2016, accusing the Center of American Progress, a leading party think tank, of “maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas.” A fundraising letter assails “career political operatives (who are) begging the financial elite for money ... to derail our movement.”

The basic message is the same one that drove so many of his supporters to abandon Clinton: The system is rigged against us, so if we lose, we don’t owe the Democrats anything.

But there’s a worse outcome for the Democrats than Bernie losing the nomination: Bernie winning. A self-described socialist who would be 79 on Election Day has virtually no chance of defeating Trump.

Unlike Sanders, Warren has no real shot at the Democratic nomination, but she can make trouble in other ways. In a rather desperate -- but successful -- attempt to attract attention in a very crowded field, she was the first candidate to call for impeaching the president.

That is really bad advice. Impeachment is a very unwieldy mechanism that has never been successfully invoked in our entire history. And since it would require 20 Republican votes in the Senate to convict the president, the chances of using impeachment to get rid of him are exactly zero.

The inevitable outcome would give Trump even more ammunition to say to his supporters, “See, I told you, the coastal elites are all out to get me -- and you. They tried a coup and they failed.” Along with “no collusion” and “no obstruction,” Trump would acquire a third battle cry: “no conviction.”

Impeachment seems inherently unfair because it overturns the results of an election. But denying a president a second term at the ballot box is a much more common, and legitimate, strategy. From 1976 through 1992, three sitting presidents -- Ford, Carter and Bush 41 -- were all defeated for re-election.

The lessons of history are clear. If Democrats really want to get rid of Trump, they should focus on the next election, not the last one. And they should nominate someone who can actually win -- a pragmatist, not a purist. Any Democrat who supports Sanders or Warren should remember McGovern and Mondale, and the two Republicans they lost to: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.