The Democratic Party leadership is like a heavy, sodden blanket, dragging down its own coalition of voters and young candidates as they struggle to rise up against the Trump presidency. But that blanket is slowly being cast off.
Look no further than Boston City Council member Ayanna Pressley's surprise upset win in the primary race for Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District — knocking off 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano.
Now, unlike centrist Rep. Joe Crowley, who was toppled by democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York earlier this summer, Capuano has been a longstanding and firm left-wing voice, particularly on foreign policy. There were actually few differences between Capuano and Pressley on policy. She notably refused to take any corporate PAC money, and did not support a "blue lives matter" bill to make it a federal crime to attack a police officer, as Capuano did. But on the other hand, she was skeptical of Medicare-for-all as recently as 2016, while Capuano has supported it since 2005.
Capuano, who is white, also got wide support from the African-American Democratic establishment. Black Massachusetts Democrats reportedly urged Pressley, who is black, not to run, while civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) held an event for Capuano earlier this year. But Pressley stomped Capuano nonetheless, largely on the strength of huge black turnout.
So what happened here? It seems fair to conclude that the opinion of the Democratic establishment — black, white, or otherwise — is carrying increasingly little weight with voters. Of course, establishment-backed Democrats are still winning elections. But voters are less and less convinced of elite wisdom. Lawmakers who have wandered the halls of power for two decades are viewed with skepticism. Candidates who are simply different — particularly when it comes to younger minority women taking on old white guys — seem worth a shot. Thus Pressley's slogan: "Change Can't Wait."
There are innumerable reasons why Democratic voters are giving less weight to the preferences of their party's leaders — but the political cowardice, tactical stupidity, and utter policy bankruptcy of the Democratic Party's top ranks are surely among the biggest drivers of the left's growing disregard for elite "wisdom."
You can see it in Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's feckless attempts to blame gas price increases on President Trump, or in opportunistically using the Trump presidency to allow attacks on Obama-era achievements like the Iran deal or financial deregulation. Or in the Democratic elite's wagon-circling around New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, who might just lose to a Republican due to his egregious corruption scandals. Or in Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez reversing his party's decision not to take money from oil company PACs.
And now there's House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's promise to enact "pay as you go" budgeting rules should Democrats triumph in the midterms and retake the House. This is exactly the kind of boneheaded own goal that is bad on policy grounds, bad on political grounds, and causes Democratic voters to lament the ineptitude of their leaders.
The basic idea is that changes in the federal budget would have to be compensated to avoid increasing the deficit. So if Democrats want to pass a big new benefit, they would have to spell out detailed tax increases (or cuts elsewhere) to pay for it. As David Dayen explains, this would basically strangle the entire progressive agenda right out of the gate. It would require big, clear, unpopular tax increases or spending cuts to be stapled to every piece of new legislation.
This would be a huge political gift to Republicans — who never even pretend to think about how to pay for their gigantic tax cuts for the rich. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did a whole lot of pointless austerity to get the deficit down, after which ensuing Republican governments thanked them kindly, blew them a kiss, and handed the savings immediately to the top 1 percent. Today, as in 2001, the deficit is exploding thanks to this process.
Of course, one cannot borrow infinitely. But the deficit is light years from climate change, inequality, protecting democracy, or imperial rollback in terms of importance to most Democratic voters. Ultimately, "pay as you go" is the kind of thing stupid, pandering, elitist people think sounds responsible to other snooty elites.
The Democratic Party's leaders are almost out of ideas. And the ideas they do have are idiotically counterproductive. The party and the nation are in a severe crisis. Is it any wonder Democratic voters are searching for someone, anyone, to shake things up?