by Edward Luce
U.S. Politics & Policy
Sept. 13, 2017
Both the Democrats and the Republicans are riven by internal schisms.
Politicians rise and fall but some cannot quit the stage. “There were plenty of people hoping that I, too, would disappear,” writes Hillary Clinton. “But here I am.” Mrs Clinton’s three-month global book tour is her bid at redemption. But her “autopsy tour” on what happened to her 2016 campaign will only deepen the split between the Democratic party’s pragmatic wing and those trying to reinvent it as a European-style socialist party. Mrs Clinton versus Bernie Sanders. Haven’t we seen this drama already?
Yes, but this is season two. We are also deep into the plot of the Republican civil war between the nativist populists, who are led by Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, and its establishment, whose agenda is tax cuts. Partisans might ask whose side Mr Trump is on. They will never find out. Sometimes he will throw a bone to the alt-right. At others he will sound like a business chamber Republican. In reality, Mr Trump supports a brand of one. Those in search of his philosophical core should start with the Bermuda Triangle.
There was a time when the US had two functioning parties. That is no longer the case. I can now count four. Since Mr Trump has no fixed membership, the tally has risen temporarily to five. In last year’s primaries, the right populist and left populist candidates, Mr Trump and Mr Sanders, took more than half of the votes between them. If that were translated into seats, America’s traditional two parties would be in a minority. The picture would be closer to Emmanuel Macron’s France, where the Gaullists and Socialists are on the sidelines.
But American politics is doomed to limp on with the shell of two parties. Their contempt for each other is exceeded only by their antagonisms within. Neither of each party’s warring factions is strong enough to claim the whole. But they have enough clout to stop their rivals from doing so. Mrs Clinton’s return to the stage has brought the Democratic fissure into the open.
“I am not done with politics because I literally believe that our country’s future is at stake,” she said on Sunday. Mr Sanders retorted: “Our job now is really not to go backwards.” Mr Sanders begins this week with his bill to have “Medicare for all” — a single payer healthcare system along the lines of those in France and Switzerland. The bill stands zero chance of being passed in a Republican-controlled Congress. But it serves as a perfect device for presidential hopefuls to signal to the party’s base which way they are heading.
Four other 2020 aspirants, including Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, are co-sponsoring the legislation. To Democratic centrists, such as Mrs Clinton, “Medicare for all” is the epitome of the gesture politics they despise.Mr Sanders has said nothing about how he would pay for the reform. Economists say it would require a huge tax increase.
The gulf between “progressives who get things done”, as Mrs Clinton puts it, and those who pontificate but achieve little, is visible across the board. Sanders Democrats are closer to Mr Trump’s America First supporters on foreign policy than to Mrs Clinton’s mainstream globalism. Sanders Democrats dislike overseas entanglements to the point of having little opinion on foreign policy at all. Likewise, there is a growing schism on whether to treat Silicon Valley as friend or foe. Mrs Warren, who is vying with Mr Sanders to be the leader of the socialist Democrats, wants to break up big data titans like Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon. Democratic centrists view such trust-busting with horror. Silicon Valley, after all, is their largest financial donor.
Money is also splitting the Republicans. Mr Bannon’s jihad against the Republican establishment is funded by Robert Mercer, the hedge fund billionaire. They believe the party’s leaders have “nullified” Mr Trump’s America First agenda, and are busy funding populist challengers to Republican incumbents. In reality, each faction is competing for Mr Trump’s soul. The one point on which they agree is that he should not do deals with Democrats. On this they are at one with the Sanders wing of the Democratic party. Any Democrat who hands Mr Trump a win is likely to face similar insurgencies from the left.
If Mr Trump were another person, he could orchestrate this chaos to his ends. No president has inherited better conditions to realign US politics. But Mr Trump has the attention span of a goldfish. Mrs Clinton, meanwhile, has the memory of an elephant. She has launched a funding vehicle called “Onward together”. It sounds suspiciously like the “Stronger together” slogan she ran on last year. To put it mildly, the outlook for togetherness is not fair.