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June 06, 2014 3:55 PM Was There A Struggle For the Soul of the Democratic Party on June 3?

By Ed Kilgore

With all the attention Republicans have been receiving—including here at PA—for their primaries this cycle, Democrats probably deserve a little equal time. At the Prospect today, Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founders Adam Green and Stephanie Tayor took the opportunity to tout the victories of some of their candidates in June 3 Democratic primaries, and indeed, suggested they were part of a wave:

On Tuesday, in competitive primaries from New Jersey to Iowa to California, voters chose bold progressive Democrats over more conservative and corporate Democrats, handing big victories to the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party.
Indeed, it was Progressive Super Tuesday. And it is the latest chapter in a larger story we’ve seen play out in American politics since the Wall Street economic wreck.
There’s a rising economic populist tide in America, sweeping into office leaders like Senator Warren, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and a growing bloc of progressives in Congress.

Well, if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so Green and Taylor are just doing their jobs by suggesting that four primary outcomes are indicia of the March of Progress. But the examples they cite also indicate that any Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party occurring on June 3 was a mite less savage than what we are witnessing on the GOP side.

It’s interesting that Daily Kos Elections didn’t even mention ideology in its brief previews of three of the four races PCCC is claiming as victories of “bold progressive Democrats over more conservative and corporate Democrats” (yes, DKE is preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of campaigns rather than messaging, but if these primaries were waged as “struggles for the soul” I’m reasonably sure they would have mentioned it). It’s probably safe to say that in NJ-12 Bonnie Watson Coleman had a more progressive record and message than Linda Greenstein, but Coleman’s legislative leadership position and a money advantage helped, too. The same is true in IA-1, where Pat Murphy benefited from being a former House Speaker, and narrowly avoided being pushed into a district convention amidst a large field. And in CA-17, it’s not all that clear former Obama administration official Ro Khanna ran against Mike Honda “from the right,” as Green and Taylor put it, though I suppose there are tangible ghosts of the New Dem critique of traditional liberalism in Khanna’s claim that the incumbent wasn’t that interested in Silicon Valley’s needs in Washington. It might be premature to claim a victory for Honda as well, since they’ll have a rematch in November with much higher turnout (though Honda definitely outperformed expectations on June 3).

The most interesting characterization by Green and Taylor was of the third-place finisher in CA-33, Wendy Greuel, as “a former Republican with a history of accepting campaign donations from Big Oil and other special interests.” Greuel lost a general election spot to Ted Lieu, “who stood up for the 99 percent.” Just for grins, I looked at Greuel’s endorsement list, and there nestled among such famous reactionaries as Dolores Huerta and Kamala Harris and even Ed Begley, Jr., was none other than Bill de Blasio.

Now ideological labels are slippery, and Green and Taylor have as much right to define them as anybody else. But I don’t think it’s a terribly good idea for Democrats to emulate Republicans in treating their differences as equivalent in significance and heat to the Thirty Years War. I share the POV that the relative diversity of Democratic opinion is on balance a strength rather than a weakness. And while I admire the efforts of PCCC and others to hold candidates accountable for their views and positions, and agree that progressive accomplishments have sometimes been undone or diminished by wayward Democrats, and also agree that primaries are a perfectly valid venue for getting the best representation possible, the fact remains that treating someone like Wendy Greuel as an ideological leper is just bad politics.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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