At a time when his own former running mate is fending off criticism, former President Barack Obama’s recent warning about an emerging "circular firing squad" on the left sounds too appropriate to be coincidental.
Although Obama, who was speaking at an Obama Foundation town hall event in Berlin for "young leaders," didn’t specifically mention former Vice President Joe Biden or the 2020 presidential campaign, he didn’t have to. His implications were obvious.
Very similar remarks could have described the early days of his own rise to the White House.
"One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States, maybe it’s true here as well, is a certain kind of rigidity," Obama said in a back-and-forth with the audience. That rigidity, he said, sometimes leads to "what’s called a ’circular firing squad,’ where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues.
"When that happens, typically the overall effort and movement weakens," he said. "You can’t set up a system in which you don’t compromise on anything. But you also can’t operate in a system where you compromise on everything; everything’s up for grabs. That requires a certain amount of internal reflection and deliberations."
Remember when Obama upset the established order with his maverick campaign? He impressed a new generation of voters by standing apart from other candidates and opposing the Iraq War, unlike other top Democrats - including Hillary Clinton and Biden, among others.
Obama ran into a buzz saw of opposition in the primaries, not to mention snarky remarks by former President Bill Clinton. Among other cracks, Clinton accused Obama supporters of having "played the race card against me" and called media coverage of Obama’s record on Iraq "the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen."
Yet, the Clintons and other Democrats pulled themselves together behind Obama’s nomination and eventual victory in the traditional fashion of campaigns, as described by President Richard Nixon, of moving toward the base in the primaries and shifting toward the sensible center for the general election.
President Donald Trump broke that tradition by maintaining not only a base-focused campaign but continuing with a base-focused presidency. Despite his many controversies and unorthodox, to say the least, style of governing, polls show that he has kept his hard core of about 40 percent of the public and 80 percent or more of Republicans.
That’s far short of a majority of voters, but still enough of a rock-hard base to keep some Democrats awake at night.
With more than a dozen Democratic candidates in the race - and Biden likely to join them - we already can see signs of Democrats turning on one another.
Biden has come under fire in this #MeToo era for his hands-on style of relating to men and women at photo ops and other public occasions. He promised to show more restraint but has rankled some by joking about it to an approving, mostly male, audience of union members. At the same time, other Democrats have pushed back against the criticism, saying Biden’s alleged offenses pale in comparison with Trump’s taped vulgar boasts of grabbing women - and then winning the Electoral College anyway.
But can Democrats or any other party afford to police its candidates so punitively with standards of so-called political correctness that seem constantly to be in flux? It is a worthy and even necessary topic for vigorous and even heated debate and discussion. But in the end, as Obama used to say on the campaign trail, we should be able to disagree without being disagreeable.
More problematic are the bold moves by the new wave of congressional progressives, particularly the rising star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. She’s too young to run for president, but the obsessive media coverage of her, particularly by conservative outlets, makes it hard for some people to know that.
She has been accused of inviting primary challenges of centrist Democratic incumbents who have not been progressive enough to suit left-wing tastes. The tea party employed that strategy to push congressional Republicans into persistent gridlock with Democrats.
Using that strategy to help progressives risks abandoning Democratic incumbents in the 206 counties that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before voting for Trump in 2016. Persuadable voters in those swing districts hold the key to future Democratic presidential victories, if the party follows Obama’s advice: Target the problems that are facing voters, not their ideology.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune.