I’ve lived through a Democratic Civil War before. In fact, I’ve been in the middle of two of them. The first was in 1968, when I was the research director for Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. The second was in 1980, when I was Jimmy Carter’s policy director.
Both times, I watched pressure from the party’s liberal wing tear the party apart and bring down a Democratic presidential candidate. Both times, the Republicans took the White House. Both times, liberal dreams were shattered.
Today, I fear it could all be happening again.
As President Donald Trump moved the Republican Party sharply to the populist right, early entrants to the Democratic Party presidential contest have veered sharply to the left, along with several energetic new Democratic members of the House. The left’s new avant-garde has properly identified the need to confront serious national challenges, from rising income inequality and inadequate health care coverage to climate change.
But successfully dealing with these problems demands pragmatic solutions that can gain support from a majority of Americans and do not play into Trump’s false narrative that Democrats are socialists. Speaking from experience, by demanding the moon, their proposals will crash on the launching pad and lead to nowhere good.
In 1968, I smelled the stink bombs that anti-war protesters tossed into the lobby of Humphrey’s convention headquarters. He forlornly watched from the window of his hotel suite as the Chicago police cracked down on the demonstrators with tear gas and clubs. Humphrey’s challenger from the left, Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had castigated Humphrey for the Johnson administration’s handling of Vietnam, didn’t get the nomination that year. But McCarthy failed to reconcile with his fellow Minnesotan and led his supporters back into the fold only after it was too late. Richard Nixon exploited the divisions in the party and the country and was elected by the thinnest of margins in November. His election led to an extension of the war Humphrey would have ended; during the next four years another 21,000 American soldiers were killed.
In 1980, the Democratic chasm opened again. I had been Jimmy Carter’s policy director during his 1976 campaign and went on to serve as his domestic policy adviser in the White House. A former Georgia governor running as a moderate in the Democratic primaries, Carter nevertheless had decidedly progressive accomplishments as president. I worked under Carter’s leadership to develop all the major ethics legislation still in place, requiring disclosure of assets and potential conflicts of interest for senior officials coming into office, restricting gifts while in office and curbing lobbying when leaving, and creating the office of special counsel to investigate wrongdoing by high officials, among many other measures. Carter encouraged affirmative action and directed more government contracts to minority companies. He increased the minimum wage by the largest amount in a decade, doubled the number of public jobs and expanded youth employment programs. He reformed and greatly expanded funding for food stamps and education with a new Department of Education, saved New York City and Chrysler from bankruptcy, and appointed more women and minorities to senior positions and judgeships than all his predecessors combined.
Carter showed what moderates can accomplish. But, throughout his four years in office, Carter never got full credit for this record. He was criticized by women’s and civil rights groups, social welfare advocates and the party’s union leaders for not doing enough. Consumer groups failed to mobilize for him even though he appointed many of their leaders to regulate big business. The “greenest” president in American history got little credit from environmentalists even as he doubled the size of the national park system, made conservation a centerpiece of his energy policy and championed solar energy, even installing a solar panel on the White House roof.
But the big sticking point for the liberal wing of the party was health care. To obtain support from liberal labor unions in the primaries in 1976, Carter agreed to broad principles for national health insurance, but in office refused to accept Senator Ted Kennedy’s single-payer, government run bill at a time of raging inflation. Over many days of negotiations I had with the senator in his Capitol office, we came close to agreeing on a bill that would have substituted a government-run program for a privately managed program and full coverage phased in over many years. But in the end, Kennedy bowed to labor’s demands and refused to back Carter’s own bill, which looks much like Obamacare today: employer-mandated insurance, health care for children, catastrophic coverage for major illnesses and a major expansion of Medicaid. By asking for too much, health care reform stalled for decades.
In 1980, Kennedy decided to challenge Carter from the left. The senator’s liberal supporters gummed-up the 1980 convention with more than 50 minority floor amendments to the party’s platform, demanding more and more spending and full-blown national health insurance. Kennedy lost, but the damage was done. His challenge irrevocably split the party. When finally defeated, the senator stole the soul of the convention with a dramatic speech promising that “The dream will never die.” He refused the ritual joint hand clasp with the renominated president, offering only a tortured long-distance handshake, and backed away from full participation in the campaign against Ronald Reagan, who coasted to victory in November.
It is, of course, impossible to know how much the liberal split affected the general election results. The bad luck of having record inflation (which Carter’s courageous appointment of Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve ended, but too late for his reelection), long gasoline lines from the shutdown of oil production during the Iranian revolution, and especially the Iran hostage crisis were also key factors in his defeat. But I believe that party infighting also played a significant role.
And Kennedy himself came to regret his inflexibility. Years later, as the senator continued his futile efforts to reform heath care, he wistfully said: “Where’s the Carter bill now that we really need it?”
Will the liberal wing this time around realize the damage a similar split will do to Democratic chances of regaining the White House? Maximalist ideology is a prescription for division and defeat.
So, what should the party rally around? While Medicare for All may be a useful campaign slogan to focus the Democrats’ priority of reforming our inefficient and expensive health care system, a totally government run program is not a solution; efforts to obtain it would do more to undermine Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act than the Republicans have done. Democrats should focus on strengthening Obamacare by making its private exchanges function more efficiently, by lowering drug prices, expanding Medicaid for needy Americans in all states and allowing earlier eligibility for Medicare.
Income inequality cannot simply be wiped away by wealth taxes, confiscatory tax rates for corporations and breaking up large banks. The country needs a fair tax system (Carter called our tax system then, as it is now, “a disgrace to the human race”) in which the middle class gets a larger share of the cuts, the super-wealthy pay a fairer share and companies cannot wriggle through loopholes and pay nothing. Workers also need a flexible education and apprenticeship system for non-college bound students, similar to those in Germany and Switzerland, to prepare them for the 21st century 5G economy.
As chief U.S. negotiator in the Clinton administration for the Kyoto Protocols to reduce greenhouse gases, I am painfully aware the clock is ticking on the time we must act to save our planet from catastrophic damage. But the answer to climate change is not a Green New Deal that would have the federal government prescribe all of our power needs through renewable, zero-emission sources, retrofitting every building, removing all greenhouse gases from transportation and guaranteeing a job to every American. Pragmatic programs should use market-based incentives, including a carbon tax, which would be made politically palatable by recycling part of the revenue into lower taxes for the middle class and into renewable energy programs.
A two state solution for Israel and the Palestinians is essential, but it will not be achieved by blaming Israel alone for the impasse or failing to back legislation that builds on the 1977 anti-Israel boycott law Carter signed into law, as many Democratic presidential hopefuls did, or worse, defending those who single out American Jews for dual loyalty for supporting a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Several candidates have revived an even more provocative and politically undeliverable proposal for taxpayers to pay reparations to African Americans for their ancestors’ slavery, and the discrimination they have since endured. I have extensive experience in trying to rectify another historic injustice: for victims of the Holocaust. As the chief negotiator for both the U.S. government in several administrations and for the Jewish Claims Conference, I have negotiated tens of billions of dollars of compensation for Holocaust victims from Swiss and French banks, German and Austrian slave labor companies, European insurance companies, and for Nazi-looted property and art. These were arduous negotiations over many years, and continue to this day. They were also possible because they are limited in scope: Generally, we could only exact payments for living survivors or in some cases their immediate heirs. Compensation for looted property, such as art and bank accounts, was paid only when it could be traced and identified. No one could devise a workable or politically palatable solution to identify and pay tens of millions of African Americans for what Abraham Lincoln called “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.”
Americans of color still face systemic discrimination in education, employment and housing. And millions of Americans white, black and brown, still have no health care coverage, which virtually every other industrial democracy in the world provides to all of their citizens. It would be better to focus on policies that can gain broad public support: Expand health care under the framework of Obamacare, encourage more investment in low-income neighborhoods, endorse affirmative action based on socioeconomic need, offer more government contracts to minority companies, repair the shredded social safety net, increase funding of Head Start for poor children and elementary and secondary education in poverty-stricken districts, and broaden Pell Grants to help make college affordable.
It is a misreading of last November’s midterm elections to believe the House was flipped to Democratic control by the election of a few arch-liberals, most of whom displaced centrist Democrats. The greatest gains were made by moderate Democrats capturing Republican districts. A successful Democratic presidential candidate might take a leaf from Carter’s playbook, even more successfully accomplished by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, to appeal to both sides of the party’s coalition to attract and hold moderate Americans tired of partisanship—Americans who want the highest ethical standards in the White House, who will respect and strengthen the institutions that represent our values—from the FBI to the press to our public schools. A successful candidate will eschew identity politics and want to unite Americans rather than divide the country into warring tribes, will strengthen, not weaken, our worldwide network of alliances, and will recognize there is a big country with its own problems that must be addressed between the two coasts.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a liberal pragmatist and a political master at herding cats, has readied programs that can lay the foundation for a presidential candidate who can articulate a clear and acceptable message on health care, economic equality and a positive role for government that has wide appeal in the country, while simultaneously capturing the energy of the newcomers of the liberal left—if the liberal left will only listen. The Democrats must iron out their differences and present a united front against Trump, who will have the advantages of incumbency, a positive economy and the support of a united Republican Party. If these progressives keep their eye on winning in 2020, they can be part of a broad coalition to shape their politics into laws which tackle the problems they have identified—which is why they took up arms and won their way to Washington in the first place. Otherwise, we could witness another divided Democratic Party leading to another Republican victory. And the progressive left will have accomplished nothing.