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Donald Trump
Image: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Is Donald Trump the unifier of the Democratic Party?

Michael Knigge Washington
November 1, 2018

The Democratic Party, divided into different camps since its bruising presidential election defeat, has come together recently. But Democrats disagree on whether Donald Trump played a role in the party's newfound unity.


Melissa Byrne is a Democratic activist and organizer who was detained last year while protesting in Trump Tower. She lives in Philadelphia.

Justin Talbot-Zorn is a progressive Democrat who served as legislative director for three members of Congress. He lives in Santa Fe.

Robert Shrum is a centrist Democrat who worked as a strategist on the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry. He lives in Los Angeles.

Byrne, Talbot-Zorn and Shrum represent different strands of the Democratic Party, different generations and different parts of the US. But they agree on one thing: The party has come together recently. They disagree, however, on whether US President Donald Trump had anything to do with the party's newfound cohesion.  

Read more: Ralph Nader: Donald Trump is 'a clear and imminent danger' to the world

'Bolder and stronger'

"Donald Trump is the unwitting unifier of the Democratic Party," Shrum, now the director of the Center for the Political Future and the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, told DW. Putting a check on Trump is, he said, "the first thing the Democratic Party stands for" in the eyes of many voters.

It is no small feat to unify the party following its bitter presidential election defeat in 2016, a year when Democrats were split during the primaries between the centrist camp represented by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and progressives, represented by her opponent, Bernie Sanders.

But Trump, simply by being the president, unwittingly rose to the occasion, Talbot-Zorn told DW. "He is doing the work of achieving that. I would not go so far as that the Democratic Party has one united philosophical point of view at this point. But there is more convergence than we have seen at any time in recent history."

Robert Shrum
The strategist Shrum views Trump as a mobilizer for DemocratsImage: Matt Meindl

Byrne concurs that the party has come together, despite enduring disagreements on some issues. But she rejects assigning Trump any role in the process.

"After Occupy, folks in the Democratic Party and adjacent to the party got bolder and stronger in our organizing," she wrote in a text message. "I think our work would have accelerated no matter the presidency, so I refuse to give any credit to the white nationalist in the White House."

Read more: A good day for the FBI and America

Health and education

As evidence of how the party has come together, all three point to universal health care and college tuition reform as two key domestic issues on which there was discord earlier and agreement now.
On health care, Democrats want to first shore up President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act — also called Obamacare — which made health insurance available for previously uninsured Americans. As a second step, they want to institute universal health insurance for all Americans, something most comparable countries have had for a long time.

The party's consensus on universal health care is only a recent development, said Talbot-Zorn, who worked in Congress on the Medicare for All bill championed by former Representative John Conyers. Medicare provides health insurance for Americans above the age of 65.

USA: Protest against Trumpcare
Centrist Democrats had argued that it would be politically difficult to expand health careImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/E. McGregor

"That was typically a fairly fringe issue," Talbot-Zorn said. "There were a few dozen co-sponsors. But the number of co-sponsors has increased to an extraordinary extent over the last year, really since, I think, Trump has come into office."

And, on tuition reform, Democrats now also agree that the cost of attending US colleges and universities, which saddles large numbers of students with huge debt for years after graduation, is a societal problem that has to be tackled. While they may not yet be on the same page about the exact way to address it, the fact that they do agree that it is a problem that needs fixing is a significant development.

"There is a much greater consensus in the Democratic Party now that the country has to do something about the high cost of college and the debt people are coming out with," Shrum said. 

Melissa Byrne
Byrne rejects crediting Trump with unifying the party Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M.B. Ceneta

New Saudi stance

Talbot-Zorn said a new consensus was even emerging on Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and Washington's relationship with Riyadh — an important and timely foreign policy issue. Previously, only a few progressive Democrats and some libertarian-leaning Republicans in Congress were pushing the Trump administration to end its support for the Saudi war in Yemen.      

"Now, just as of the last two months, you have all of the key relevant leaders of the Democratic Party, at least in the House, supporting a joint resolution to withdraw all support for any combatant operations in Yemen," Talbot-Zorn said, referring to the lower chamber of the US Congress. "That's a big change that's happened."

And, though a key part of that change is attributable to the killing of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was also a US resident, that's not the whole story, Talbot-Zorn said. "It's also the fact of Trump's actions and the fact of his administration creating more of a sense of ideological cohesion among Democrats."

Across the spectrum

Their recent convergence on some issues does not mean that Democrats, traditionally a big-tent party with room for a diverse array of factions and groups, are in danger of becoming a political monolith. That was apparent in the divergent responses to whether or not the party's shift on health care and college tuition could be described as a move to the left.

Byrne and Talbot-Zorn say yes, Shrum says no.

He argues that the media tends to overemphasize existing divisions in the party. On universal health care, for instance, public opinion polls have for some time shown support from a majority of people, which he said means it is mainstream rather than an issue of the left or right.

Byrne acknowledged that the Democratic Party is made up of different factions, but she believes it has generally moved left. "You have some folks that are like super progressive and some folks who aren't, but I think as a coalition we are coming more into the progressive part of the coalition."

Justin Talbot-Zorn
Talbot-Zorn thinks the party is going for long-sought goalsImage: privat

Talbot-Zorn says that what he sees as a broad move left in the party has not taken place across the board by all members and on all issues. But, he added, the party tacking left is also a function of the current political status quo. As president, Obama had tried for quite some time — if unsuccessfully — to work with Republicans on certain issues. In the age of Trump, said Talbot-Zorn, Democrats learned very quickly that was not an option.

"Dealing with the Trumps and [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnells of the world and not sensing a path forward, I think there is more of an inclination to just say: 'Let's go for what we really want. Let's really go for what is in our view a positive, progressive vision for society,'" he said.

Shrum agrees that the president is a walking campaign advertisement for the party. "Trump sends out a message every day that helps mobilize Democrats and drives voters towards Democrats."

Future prospects

How long will the newfound party unity hold?

That depends on where you look. Should Democrats retake the House of Representatives in Tuesday's midterm elections — a distinct possibility — there is a good chance that they would devise a coherent policy platform and a unified way to deal with Trump.            

But, with the 2020 presidential campaign kicking off fairly soon after the midterm elections, individual Democratic contenders will seek to differentiate themselves from the rest. This will be the stage when lingering disagreements over the party's course are likely to bubble up again, said Shrum. "These internal arguments will be fought out in 2020 and not in 2018."

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