Before the second Democratic debate in Detroit, there were 20 candidates on stage and four more in the wings pursuing the Party’s nomination.
After the debate, there are now two teams competing against one another. The Capulets are squaring off against the Montagues. The progressives against the moderates. Team Biden vs. Team Sanders and Warren.
Inevitably, teams become factions in the heat of the primary and the predictable outcome of the zero-sum game is that one wins and the other loses.
Ay, there’s the rub.
The history of the Democratic Party is filled with factional fights that last forever, reincarnate in various forms, and leave permanent legacies of bitterness and alienation.
Before the Detroit debate, the outcome of the Democratic nominating process may have involved bruised egos and disappointed followers. But, once the sides coalesced into teams, the mood of the defeated faction usually becomes much bleaker and, therefore, more problematic for the eventual nominee.
The history of these Democratic civil wars is not reassuring.
After Humphrey beat McCarthy-Kennedy-McGovern in 1968, the anti-Vietnam War left sat on their hands in the general election even when it meant that the ultimate bête noire, Richard Nixon, would win.
In 1972, when the left finally succeeded in winning, nominating Sen. George McGovern, the party establishment sabotaged him.
In 1984, the establishment candidate — Walter Mondale — defeated the insurgent Sen. Gary Hart and the resulting disappointment of Hart’s “new Democrats” led to his crushing defeat at the hands of Reagan.
In 2000, the supporters of New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, embittered by their defeat at the hands of Al Gore, defected to Ralph Nader who was running on the Green Party, electing George W. Bush.
In 2004, insurgent Vermont Gov. Howard Dean narrowly lost in the early primaries to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. The new Democrats backing Dean never embraced Kerry and he lost to George W. Bush.
And, of course, the bitterness that attended Sanders’ defeat at the hands of Hillary Clinton so divided the Democrats who Trump won.
Republicans have avoided a similar fate. The 2016 contest, for example, featured all the candidates (except Ohio’s governor John Kasich) fighting to be seen as the real conservative.
The only serious factional battle in the GOP came in 1964 when Goldwater and his Sunbelt conservatives took the Party away from the Eastern Establishment and Nelson Rockefeller.
Unlike the Democratic battles, this one was for keeps and liberal Republicans became extinct. But apart from that, all the Republican intra-party primaries have been more about personalities than factions or ideologies and the schisms were shorter and less intense.
2020 Democrats always faced the peril that their candidate would be too old or too inexperienced.
But, now that the Party has resurrected its traditional factions, the potential for division runs even deeper.
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