The mood of left-wing Democrats might be neatly summarized by the media coverage of last weekend’s Netroots Nation conference. The progressive left seems poised to consign former President Barack Obama to the dustbin of history. Moreover, supposedly woke agitators do not seem to care how their exercise might affect black voters who comprise a crucial part of their 2020 electoral strategy.
According to Vox, “Progressive activists know their enemy in the 2020 Democratic primary: Joe Biden.” As Vox notes, “Some activists at Netroots conceded they would support Biden in a general election if they had no other choice.”
Dean Obeidallah of CNN and The Daily Beast finds this concession a sign of a pragmatism that should make President Donald Trump quake with fear, as opposed to the rock-bottom minimum expectation for a group that claims to believe the president is an existential threat to the republic. Not unlike the Hollywood types who take private jets to climate change conferences, the gap between rhetoric and action is considerable.
After a Mere Four Years, Obama Nostalgia Is Gone
The left’s antipathy is not limited to Biden. At the Washington Post, David Weigel profiles “The Democrats who don’t miss Obama (or Biden).” In his day, Weigel covered any number of Tea Party conferences (often unfairly); if he noticed that Netroots is the left-wing, hall-of-funhouse-mirrors version of those events, he failed to include it in his news “analysis.”
Rather, Weigel provided a deadpan account of how “the largest annual gathering of liberal activists, which pulls everyone from electoral data gurus to disability rights activists into one loud space, had no nostalgia at all for a two-term president who, for a while, seemed to redefine the Democratic Party.”
In this telling, Obama — and by extension, Biden — “left activists demoralized, reducing Democratic Party power to its lowest levels in 90 years.” That Obama redefined his party as further to the left and that it is in tatters because he pandered to the activist left too much is a possibility simply too terrible for them to contemplate.
Yet Weigel, in some obligatory throat-clearing, includes the following concession to political reality: “Although most Democratic voters adore Obama, and although he’s far more popular than other former presidents, the thought of winding the clock back to before the 2016 election does not animate liberals.” Weigel’s use of “liberal” rather than “progressive” or “left-wing” is fairly misleading, given how Democrats tend to identify themselves:
— Matt Grossmann (@MattGrossmann) March 6, 2019
Fond memories of Obama may not animate the Netroots, but they do animate rank-and-file Democrats, including those who identify as liberal. Obama nostalgia is at the heart of Biden’s campaign, which is a constant source of angst for the progressive left.
Black Voters Matter
Moreover, the former vice president’s current lead is based in significant part on his commanding lead among black Democrats, which is the salt rubbed in the far left’s wounds. As Vox reports, the clear favorite at the Netroots conference was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, followed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.
As with Weigel’s report, there is a key point made only in passing: “Warren’s biggest challenge is still with black voters, whom she is struggling with compared to Sanders, Harris, and Biden. A recent Morning Consult poll showed Warren netting just 7 percent of black voters who said she was their first choice, compared to 21 percent for Sanders and 16 percent for Harris (and Biden in the lead with 38 percent).”
The problem does not stop there, either. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was the top fundraiser for the second quarter of 2019, sucking up $24.8 million — three times as much as he raised in the first quarter. In the same Morning Consult poll, he was the first choice of 2 percent of black voters.
For a crowd that thrives on accusing America of perpetuating white supremacy, progressives seem to have little fondness for America’s first black president. In a campaign where progressives preach the need to energize voters of color, they seem indifferent to the preferences of black voters. The left prefers a well-known candidate such as Warren (with an almost equally well-known likability problem), who polls in single digits with this crucial constituency, all the while telling themselves they can make people of color like her. If you wrote this as fiction, editors would reject it as unrealistic.
Progressives Must Find a Balance
Progressives have another argument open to them. Perhaps the smartest observation at Netroots came from Minnesota Attorney General and Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, who said, “Biden wasn’t put on the Obama ticket because he and Obama agreed. They put him on because they didn’t. He was a ticket balancer.” The left should embrace Obama instead of shunning him, while painting Biden as the odd man out.
This gambit requires some humility from progressives, inasmuch as it would require them to take some responsibility for the decline of the Democratic Party on Obama’s watch. But if the left simply chooses to abandon Obama and his legacy, there is no guarantee the alternatives will fully energize the black voters they need.
Also, tossing Biden overboard probably hurts Democrats’ chances with working-class, white voters, which will matter more than they think in the high-turnout presidential election most expect. Progressives can almost taste victory, but the manner in which they dismiss major blocs of the Democratic coalition remains as big an obstacle to their success as their extreme platform.