What the left gets wrong about the Democrats’ 2020 contenders

As Donald Trump’s presidency collapses, more and more Democrats are positioning themselves to run in 2020. Yet some on the political left have taken to shooting down Democrat after Democrat for being insufficiently committed to the progressive cause. Rather than cannibalizing other progressives, the left should take a step back and reflect on its remarkable success in shifting the Democratic Party. The very candidates that the left insists on undercutting are in fact shining examples of its own impact.

The list of Democrats on the receiving end of leftward shots across the bow includes New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Essentially, it’s most of the top-tier Democratic contenders for the 2020 nomination except for progressive favorites Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

This cohort of Democrats falls suspect among the left for allegedly problematic deviations from progressive purity. Some are thought to be too cozy with Wall Street and high finance (Gillibrand, Booker, and Patrick). Others have “evolved” from old positions that put them on the wrong side of contemporary thinking on issues like immigration or criminal justice (Gillibrand and Harris). Still others are thought to simply delight in pantsing the left for political gain and/or personal joy (Cuomo).

Aside from the blemishes on these candidates’ resumes, the left is also suspicious of the sources of their support. As Ryan Cooper wrote at The Week, the left’s substantive distrust of some of these Democrats is heightened by the “probably accurate perception that [Harris, Booker, and Patrick] are being groomed by the same big-money donors that clustered around Hillary Clinton[.]”

Given the ditch that they have driven the party into, a certain degree of innate skepticism of Democratic power brokers and their progeny is certainly warranted. Having lost control of all branches of the federal government, and marginalized to control of just six measly state governments, the Democratic Party is at its weakest point since Reconstruction. The tactical choices of the party leaders who got it there deserve a good degree of suspicion.

Yet the left’s apparent hostility to the current crop of Democratic contenders is misplaced. As these figures have jockeyed to position themselves for higher office, they have run toward left-leaning positions, not away from them. Cuomo may be the left’s principal Democratic arch nemesis, but he has raised New York’s minimum wage, enacted the country’s strongest paid family leave program, and adopted one of the country’s strictest gun control laws. He even kick-started his successful pitch for free college with Sanders at his side — a program that Sanders called “a revolutionary idea for higher education.”

For her part, Gillibrand has spent years as the leading congressional advocate for twelve weeks of nationally-guaranteed paid family leave. She has also endorsed a Medicare-for-all healthcare system. Harris and Booker have backed single-payer healthcare, too, albeit somewhat tepidly. Harris has also endorsed a $15-an-hour national minimum wage and criminal justice reform. Booker has proposed nationwide marijuana legalization and has long committed himself to ending child poverty — a favorite cause of Sanders as well.

A generation ago, up-and-coming Democrats saw virtue in lurching to the right by being tough on crime, equivocating on social issues like same-sex marriage, and shying away from much if any new social spending. Today, the party’s most ambitious politicians see political value in embracing a number of the left’s agenda items — a huge testament to the left’s success.

Free college and Medicare-for-all were nowhere to be found in the national discussion until Sanders’s social democratic insurgency in 2016. Now, those proposals are becoming standard fare for establishment Democrats. The party’s go-to think tank has devised plans for a national jobs guarantee — another policy favorite on the left. In a matter of four years, the idea of a $15 minimum wage has gone from a socialist city council member in Seattle to a key plank in the Democrats’ “Better Deal” platform. That’s an impressive impact in a short amount of time.

It’s also unwise to attack progressive figures for holding positions in institutions of power. Harris has drawn fire for working as a prosecutor in San Francisco. But in an interview with CNN’s David Axelrod, Harris defended her career choice: “[W]hen you want to improve a system, certainly there is a role to be played about, you know, marching in about banging down the door and sometimes on bended knee. [But] [t]here is also a role which is to be at the table where the decisions are made and influence the system from that perch.”

Similarly, the left has castigated Deval Patrick for cashing in after his governorship and joining Bain Capital (of Mitt Romney fame). Yet Patrick has been working to steer the private equity firm toward more socially-beneficial enterprises, raising some $390 million for investments promoting “sustainability, health and wellness, and then a place-based strategy we’re calling ‘community building,’ which is about companies that are intentional about creating good jobs and economic activity in places of chronic underemployment,” he told Politico.

The Democratic Party’s most ambitious politicians are racing to embrace the policies promoted by the left. That ought to be a cause for celebration by leftists, not one of dismissal and derision. Nor should these figures be condemned as hopelessly compromised for trying to affect progressive change within the halls of power. We need more progressives to get in the arena, rather than settling for firing spitballs at it.

The left’s purity test cuts both ways, after all. Elizabeth Warren was a registered Republican until the mid-1990s, and once proposed a universal school voucher plan to “shock” the education system. Sanders has opposed gun control measures and helped beat back bipartisan immigration reform in 2007, arguing that it would drive down wages for other Americans. Do these sins against progressivism make Sanders and Warren suspect, too?

The ideological space between mainstream Democrats and the Sanders wing on the left is shrinking at a remarkable pace. What the left should be agitating for in national politics is not an untarnished savior, but instead an opportunity-driven president and Congress that see political gain in advancing progressive legislation.

The left is rapidly reframing our politics. It should keep at this success rather than spiting it.

public interest attorney. policy thinker. writer. views are my own. bylines various places. @ Queens, NY.