Par­ti­san di­vi­sions aren’t news, but a left­ward shift is

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - Dan.balz@wash­post.com

Par­ti­san di­vi­sions are not new news in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, nor is the as­ser­tion that one cause of the deep­en­ing po­lar­iza­tion has been a demon­stra­ble right­ward shift among Repub­li­cans. But a more re­cent left­ward move­ment in at­ti­tudes among Democrats also is no­table and has ob­vi­ous im­pli­ca­tions as the party looks to­ward 2020.

Here is some con­text. In 2008, not one of the ma­jor can­di­dates for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion ad­vo­cated le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage. By 2016, not one of those who sought the nom­i­na­tion op­posed such unions, and not just be­cause of the Supreme Court’s rul­ings. Chang­ing at­ti­tudes among all vot­ers, and es­pe­cially Demo­cratic vot­ers, made sup­port for same-sex mar­riage an ar­ti­cle of faith for any­one seek­ing to lead the party.

Trade pol­icy is an­other case study. Over many years, Democrats have been di­vided on the mer­its of mul­ti­lat­eral free­trade agree­ments. In 1992, Bill Clin­ton strongly sup­ported the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAFTA) in the face of stiff op­po­si­tion from la­bor unions and oth­ers. He took his case into union halls, and although he didn’t con­vert his op­po­nents, he pros­pered po­lit­i­cally in the face of that op­po­si­tion.

By 2016, with skep­ti­cism ris­ing more gen­er­ally about trade and glob­al­iza­tion, Hil­lary Clin­ton was not will­ing to make a sim­i­lar de­fense of the mer­its of free-trade agree­ments. With Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) bash­ing the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP) as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Clin­ton joined the cho­rus of op­po­nents. She ended up on the op­po­site side of thenPres­i­dent Barack Obama, even though she had spo­ken warmly about the prospects of such a treaty as sec­re­tary of state.

Look­ing ahead to 2020, some­thing sim­i­lar is likely to take place on the is­sue of health care. Be­cause of chang­ing at­ti­tudes that al­ready are un­der­way within the party, it will be dif­fi­cult for any Demo­crat seek­ing the nom­i­na­tion not to sup­port some kind of sin­gle-payer health-care plan, even if big ques­tions re­main about how it could be ac­com­plished.

San­ders used his 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to ad­vo­cate a uni­ver­sal health-care plan that he dubbed “Medi­care for All.” The more cau­tious Clin­ton, who saw flaws in what San­ders was ad­vo­cat­ing, ar­gued in­stead for im­prove­ments to the Af­ford­able Care Act.

San­ders has now in­tro­duced a “Medi­care for All” mea­sure in the Se­nate, and his co-spon­sors in­clude sev­eral other prospec­tive can­di­dates for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion in 2020.

Mean­while, a ma­jor­ity of House Democrats have signed onto a sin­gle-payer plan spon­sored by Rep. John Cony­ers Jr. (D-Mich.) that goes much fur­ther. This has hap­pened even though some of those who like Cony­ers’s idea in prin­ci­ple ques­tion whether it is ready for prime time, not only be­cause of the po­ten­tial cost and the ab­sence of a mech­a­nism to pay for it but also be­cause of other po­ten­tial pol­icy flaws.

The pres­sure to em­brace sin­gle-payer plans grows out of shifts in at­ti­tudes among Democrats. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter found in June that 52 per­cent of self-iden­ti­fied Democrats now sup­port a gov­ern­ment-run health-care sys­tem. That is up nine points since the be­gin­ning of the year and 19 points since 2014. Among lib­eral Democrats, 64 per­cent sup­port such a plan (up 13 points just this year) and among younger Democrats, 66 per­cent say they sup­port it.

Health care isn’t the only area in which Demo­cratic at­ti­tudes are shift­ing sig­nif­i­cantly. Oth­ers in­clude such is­sues as the role of gov­ern­ment and the so­cial safety net; the role of race and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in so­ci­ety; and im­mi­gra­tion and the value of di­ver­sity.

A few days ago, the Pew Cen­ter re­leased a com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey on the widen­ing gap be­tween Repub­li­cans and Democrats. The bot­tom line is summed up by one of the open­ing sen­tences in the re­port: “Repub­li­cans and Democrats are now fur­ther apart ide­o­log­i­cally than at any point in more than two decades.”

This poll is the lat­est in a series of sur­veys dat­ing to 1994. To­gether they pro­vide not just snap­shots in time but also an arc of the changes in pub­lic opin­ion. Repub­li­cans moved to the right harder and ear­lier than Democrats began mov­ing left, and the GOP base re­mains more un­com­pro­mis­ing. But on a num­ber or ques­tions, the big­gest re­cent move­ment has been among Democrats.

In its new sur­vey, Pew found the widest par­ti­san gap ever on the ques­tion of whether gov­ern­ment should help those in need — pri­mar­ily be­cause of re­cent shifts among Democrats. From 2011 to to­day, the per­cent­age of Democrats who say gov­ern­ment should do more to help those in need has jumped from 54 per­cent to 71 per­cent.

Only a mi­nor­ity of Repub­li­cans (24 per­cent) say gov­ern­ment should do more for the needy, and that fig­ure has barely moved in the past six years. The Repub­li­cans shifted their views from 2007 through 2011, the early years of the Obama pres­i­dency, dur­ing which their sup­port for a gov­ern­ment role dropped by 20 per­cent­age points.

Two re­lated ques­tions pro­duce a sim­i­lar pat­tern among Democrats. Three in 4 Democrats say that “poor peo­ple have hard lives be­cause gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits don’t go far enough to help them live de­cently,” up a dozen points in the past few years.

Eight in 10 Democrats say the coun­try needs to con­tinue to make changes to give black cit­i­zens equal rights with white ones, up 18 points since 2014. And more than 6 in 10 say “racial dis­crim­i­na­tion is the main rea­son many black peo­ple can’t get ahead these days,” up from 4 in 10 three years ago.

Mean­while, a quar­ter of Repub­li­cans agree with the state­ment on gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits, fewer than 4 in 10 say the coun­try needs to con­tinue to work to pro­vide equal rights for blacks, and 14 per­cent cite racial dis­crim­i­na­tion as the main rea­son many blacks can’t get ahead.

Mem­bers of both par­ties have be­come more pos­i­tive in their at­ti­tudes about im­mi­gra­tion in re­cent years, but the par­ti­san gap re­mains huge: 42 points in the new sur­vey. To­day, 84 per­cent of Democrats say im­mi­grants strengthen the coun­try through hard work and tal­ents, up from 48 per­cent in 2010. In 2010, 29 per­cent of Repub­li­cans agreed with that state­ment; to­day, that has risen to 42 per­cent.

Why have Demo­cratic po­si­tions moved so dra­mat­i­cally and so re­cently on these ques­tions race and gov­ern­ment and im­mi­gra­tion? Though it is not ex­plic­itly ad­dressed in the sur­vey, one pos­si­ble rea­son is a re­ac­tion to the 2016 cam­paign and the Trump pres­i­dency.

Pres­i­dent Trump ob­vi­ously found strong sup­port for his con­tro­ver­sial views on im­mi­gra­tion, whether his call to build a wall on the U.S.-Mex­i­can bor­der or to bar refugees from mostly Mus­lim coun­tries. Those pro­nounce­ments helped him win the pres­i­dency. But those poli­cies and the rhetoric that of­ten pre­ceded them also pro­duced a strong backlash from the pres­i­dent’s op­po­nents.

The 2016 cam­paign ended up high­light­ing is­sues of na­tional iden­tity — race and im­mi­gra­tion and the shift­ing char­ac­ter and face of the coun­try — in of­ten divisive ways that un­leashed the kind of ug­li­ness seen in Char­lottesville protests in Au­gust.

The Demo­cratic Party is be­ing shaped by the Trump pres­i­dency and by re­ac­tions to the pres­i­dent among rank-and-file Democrats. Party lead­ers have been tak­ing no­tice since Trump was sworn in as pres­i­dent and have moved, as well.

Those who seek the party’s nom­i­na­tion in 2020 un­der­stand­ably will be guided by these sen­ti­ments. But they must find a way to har­ness the move­ment into a po­lit­i­cal vi­sion that is at­trac­tive to vot­ers be­yond the Demo­cratic base — a vi­sion that is grounded not just in anti-Trump re­sent­ment but in fresh and sound poli­cies as well. In such po­lar­ized times, that will not be easy.

The Demo­cratic Party is be­ing shaped by the Trump pres­i­dency and by re­ac­tions to the pres­i­dent.

JEFF SWENSEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) speaks to a crowd June 25 in Pitts­burgh about Repub­li­can health-care bills. His “Medi­care for All” bill is co-spon­sored by sev­eral prospec­tive Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE

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