The Case for Democratic Infighting

This article represents one view on a complex issue. For a different perspective, see What Are The Boundaries of a Good Fight.

Workers get the stage ready for the Democratic presidential primary debate, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As the Democratic presidential primary race has gotten going, I’ve heard a particular refrain from many on the Democratic side: That the Democrats need to stop attacking each other, unite, and get together to defeat the common enemy, which is Donald Trump and his administration.

This was articulated in a piece in The Hill in late June, prior to the first two Democratic debates, with the headline “Democrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks.” In it, several Democratic elected officials warned that the Democratic candidates are attacking each other too much, and included the line “lawmakers fear the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field is becoming a circular firing squad, with Trump winding up as the beneficiary of internecine fighting.”

This has been echoed a lot in Twitter arguments and day-to-day discourse about the 2020 race. And it got even louder when Sen. Kamala Harris confronted Biden during the debate over his long-ago stances on busing:

The idea that the Democrats should drop the attacks on one another, and only face Trump sounds great in theory. Defeating Trump remains the ultimate goal, after all, and I’m certain that every candidate for president on the Democratic side would prefer any of their opponents over four more years of the incumbent.

But in reality, that’s not how politics works, especially not in the primary season. And especially not at a time when there are major divisions within the Democratic party about both ideological and tactical questions.

There are more than 20 people running for president as Democrats. Of course, they’re going to criticize and attempt to gain advantage over one another, because that’s what politics is.

Would you want to see all 20 candidates, up on a debate stage, all agreeing with each other and having no personal or policy disagreements? Would that be a sign of healthy democracy? Instead, the Democrats need to work out what they stand for, and a competitive primary contest is the sort of place where that fight can, and should, play out.

Should the Democrats, in the summer of 2019, seven months before the voting starts, get together in a back room and choose their candidate, in order to unite behind a common Trump opponent? Doing something that undemocratic isn’t the sort of thing that’s likely to unite the Democratic Party, especially if the candidate chosen is Joe Biden, and the party finds themselves having to win over supporters of non-Biden candidates in the general—while simultaneously contending with the suspicion that the process usurped the democratic process.

That’s what happened during the Hillary/Bernie hostilities of 2016, as did one other tendency: When people say, “Democrats need to stop attacking each other,” what they often really mean is “all Democrats need to line up behind the one candidate I want.”

We also need to be selecting a candidate for their political resiliency, not how nice they look unscathed.  It would defy credulity to expect Trump to pull punches in the general election.  In fact, the consensus among pundits today seems to be that the coming general election is going to be a particularly grueling one.  With that in mind, it would be a profound handicap for the eventual democratic candidate if the primary didn’t put him or her through the crucible to ensure their candidacy can handle the pressure.  If a Democratic candidate can’t even survive attacks from fellow Democrats, they aren’t the candidate to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.

If you’re a Democrat, you may not want to see members of your party disagreeing with each other or devoting political energies to any end besides opposing Trump. But you must remember: Candidates of the same party running against each other is just something that happens in a democracy. And as you may recall, Donald Trump ran against sixteen Republicans in 2016, most of whom went at him hard.

Another Take:

This article represents one view on a complex issue. For a different perspective, see What Are The Boundaries of a Good Fight.