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Sensible Democrats, don’t repeat sensible Republicans’ 2016 mistakes

Liberals, I said, had been fundamentally mistaken about what was happening to the Republican Party. They saw an idiopathic collapse into incoherent radicalism; I saw a broader systemic problem. New factions were gaining power because structural changes had made it easier for them to do so. The U.S. electorate was sorting itself geographically into red and blue regions, united only by their mutual loathing. Technology was helping insurgent candidates bypass traditional gatekeepers. And decades of “good government reforms,” from campaign finance rules to primary elections, had inadvertently left our political parties too weak to fend off such incursions. These problems had shown up first in the GOP not because of some pathological weakness, but because control of the presidency tends to unite a party.

“Centrist, process-oriented Democrats,” I predicted, “will now discover the joys that their counterparts on the right have known for years: of screaming fruitlessly that this sort of thing is hurting the alleged policy goals of the people demanding it, and being told for their troubles, that they’re just DINO sellouts.”

Two days after Iowa, am I allowed to say that maybe I was on to something?

Even without final results, we can be pretty sure that almost half the Democratic electorate in Iowa chose either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren — two candidates who are further to the left than any nominee since George McGovern. The progressive insurgency is advancing on the castle, and it looks pretty well armed.

The centrists can comfort themselves that slightly more than half the primary voters chose a moderate. But then, Trump never had a majority of Republican voters, either; he won because the moderate lane couldn’t manage to consolidate against him.

One can imagine a similar scenario unfolding over the next month. Warren’s best chance was that both of the party’s wings would see the Massachusetts senator as someone the other side could tolerate, and would flock to her in the interests of party unity. It just hasn’t happened. Absent some truly surprising results in New Hampshire, she has no viable path forward. And if she drops out, the progressive lane will unite to a plurality, while the moderates remain divided at least through Super Tuesday.

Centrist Democrats can try to coordinate a response; what’s more, they undoubtedly will. But the experience of 2016 suggests it might not work.

By Super Tuesday 2016, moderate Republican analysts were sketching out a surefire Trump-blocking strategy: Vote for whatever non-Trump candidate was leading your state. Unfortunately, most primary voters never learned about this impeccable strategizing, because the establishment couldn’t afford to be seen actively colluding against a significant voting bloc. Tactics had to be communicated sotto voce and with a wink, which meant they largely weren’t.

But even those who understood the dominant strategy often ignored it. I watched in horror as a think-tank analyst of my acquaintance, a bright and ordinarily sensible Virginian, proudly announced that he had voted for John Kasich in an effort to send a message to the GOP about encroaching radicalism. It wasn’t that he was fine with having Trump as president. He, and millions of voters like him, simply failed to understand what was happening until it was too late.

Trump carried his state, and swept on to the presidency.

In some ways, a blocking strategy may prove even harder for the Democrats to execute. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Kasich all had their flaws in the 2016 GOP primary, but on paper, at least, any of them was a more plausible candidate than what the moderate Democrats have left: A 77-year-old former vice president who seems to have lost Iowa, badly, even with most of his competition stuck in Washington; the 38-year old former mayor of the 306th-largest city in America who polls badly with minorities; a senator who outperforms her party in her own state but finished fifth next door; and a New York billionaire whose last electoral outing was on the other party’s ticket. It’s not exactly obvious which one the party should coalesce around. Moreover, Mike Bloomberg is unconstrained by the need to raise money; he can, if he chooses, continue to battle it out for the title of “Best Former Mayor” until the last primary.

There’s still time for the moderates to figure it out. But if Warren drops out, not very much time. And much like the Republicans before them, they may well discover that they no longer have either the party cohesion or the institutional infrastructure to make that figuring count.

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