Wither the Democrats?

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Former President Barack Obama, right, speaks as Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam listens during a rally in Richmond

Apparently not. Despite all manner of recrimination and schism, and lack of enthusiasm for the bland and risk averse Ralph Northam, Democratic voters realized the stakes and turned out in large numbers to elect him governor of Virginia.

Right up until the impressive nine-point win, the election was a nail-biter. Polls showed a tightening race, and the run-up to the Virginia gubernatorial election began to feel feeling like the last days of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

But there is nothing like a big win to heal splits and restore spirits. Northam’s secret weapon was the losing GOP candidate, Ed Gillespie, is a longtime party hack and lobbyist, who was far less convincing than Donald Trump as a rich man posing as a populist. He also tried to use the Trump playbook while distancing himself from Trump personally. That didn’t work either.

The Virginia result suggests that moderate Republicans have had a bellyful of Trump, and this augurs well for the 2018 midterm. It also makes Republicans, more than Democrats, the party that needs to worry about schisms in its ranks.

Still, Democrats have a lot of healing to do.

The other day, pollster Stan Greenberg, who has advised the Clintons for three decades, and who recently wrote a scathing critique of the sheer incompetence of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, told The New Yorker magazine:

Look at Virginia right now. We have a candidate running as Hillary Clinton. He is running on the same kind of issues, and has the same kind of view of the world. It’s the Republicans who talk about the economy, not the Democrats.

In the past couple of weeks, the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, has executed a purge of leading Sanders supporters. Donna Brazile, who served as interim DNC chair after Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the Obama-era chair, was forced out, published book extracts supporting Bernie Sanders’s view that the nomination was effectively stolen by the DNC, which was supposed to be neutral, but instead supported Clinton. Maybe Brazile could have waited until after Tuesday’s elections?

Oh, and one of the wealthiest and best connected Democratic lobbyists, Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, managed to get caught in special counsel Robert Mueller’s dragnet. Tony Podesta evidently was working with Paul Manafort on behalf of a front group for the pro-Moscow Ukrainian government in power at the time. It’s stories like this that display a bipartisan special interest swamp, and turn working people against both parties.

Meanwhile, recriminations among the diverse elements of what should be the Democrats’ broad coalition are at a rolling boil. There is bitterness among feminists that deeply seeded misogyny cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.

I have had arguments with numerous feminist friends to the effect that a more compelling woman candidate such as Elizabeth Warren could have defeated Donald Trump in 2016, and could win in 2020. But some of my feminist friends counter that it would be more prudent to nominate a Midwestern white guy, say Ohio Democratic senator Sherrod Brown. There has to be something perverse about feminists arguing that misogyny is so pervasive that it’s better not to nominate a female.

Meanwhile, on the racial front, there is understandable bitterness among many African American Democrats that whites, even progressive whites, failed to protect blacks from deepening racism. Conversations about the need to talk about class as well as race tends to produce vituperation about white privilege.

In short, the progressive side of the political spectrum is a cauldron of grievances, each understandable and legitimate in its own right. But if Democrats can’t find areas of common ground, then Trump and his imitators will keep winning.

We got lucky in Virginia. Democrats need to nominate more candidates who can narrate the grievances of ordinary Americans in a convincing way and propose drastic remedies. Democrats need to remember the larger stakes and try to limit the infighting.

Out of this mess, a leader will emerge as the Democratic standard bearer for the 2020 election. Before that nominee can take on Donald Trump, or Mike Pence, or whoever the Republicans put up, he or she will need to restore some semblance of Democratic purpose and unity. Right now, that challenge seems more daunting than the election itself.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Huffington Post. Subscribe here.

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