Singing from the same hymn book.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

One American Political Party Works

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

President Barack Obama handed the political baton to Hillary Clinton today, with an endorsement that was telegraphed before the 2016 presidential campaign even began. In a few weeks, at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, he will symbolically hand over leadership of the party, as well.

This transition is structured, anticipated, consistent, orderly and boring. Which is one way of saying that the Democratic Party is a coherent, well-functioning political institution that bears little resemblance to the cascading disasters that define the Republican Party and yielded Donald Trump as its likely presidential nominee.    

The Democrats just concluded a presidential primary that Obama called "hard fought." That's a nice pat on Senator Bernie Sanders's back, and it may have seemed that way, but it's not really true. Clinton's attacks on Sanders were relatively soft, as his were in turn.  

The differences between the candidates were often about how best to achieve similar goals, such as reducing inequality and increasing health-insurance coverage and access to higher education. Neither candidate represented a stark ideological challenge to the other, or to Democratic leaders in Congress or in the White House. Sanders criticized Clinton's ethics, but never so aggressively to inflict lasting damage.

Meanwhile, the candidate who was obviously out of step with party leaders and their policies -- Sanders -- is the one who lost, decisively. And the political figure most closely identified with Sanders's faction, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, is likely to endorse Clinton soon, helping to bridge the divide.

Even Clinton's policy feints in Sanders's direction were evidence of a successful primary. The party's emerging leader moved to incorporate views, and quell dissatisfaction, from a sizable minority of the party, including many newcomers, without a sharp change in direction that would risk the party's chances in November. That's exactly what she should've done.

"There are always internal divisions within any party, but divisions in 2016 in the Democratic Party are relatively mild," said Georgetown University political scientist Hans Noel, co-author of "The Party Decides," via e-mail.

I think the main thing that differentiates the Democrats and the Republicans is that the divide in the Republican Party was among party elites and activists, as well as voters. It was a divide between the Cruz/House Freedom Caucus wing and the Bush/Boehner wing. It was hard to bridge in Congress, and it turned out to be impossible to bridge in the electorate. Donald Trump thus took advantage of this divide and captured control of some of the voters, mostly from the Cruz wing but not exclusively. But the Democrats have been largely united behind Clinton from the start, and the dissatisfaction among voters, while deep, is not widespread.

What we have is a sitting president endorsing his former secretary of state for his current job. There are differences between Obama and Clinton. (Maybe, if she is elected, she will prove more interventionist or otherwise aggressive on foreign policy. Maybe.) But does anyone think a Clinton administration will be philosophically or politically inconsistent with Obama's, or at odds with leading Democrats in Congress?

The Democratic Party has problems (see: working class, white). It has factions that are not satisfied with the status quo (see Bernie bros). But it's basically a properly functioning political party performing the duties it's designed to perform. Not everything in American politics is a mess.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net