Last week, the first barest glimmer of a crack in Democratic unity began to appear when word got out that Bernie Sanders has begun to express concern at the track of Joe Biden’s campaign.

That’s certainly understandable, as there have been some signs of late that the race is narrowing. At a certain level, that’s to be expected as we get closer to Election Day and more voters begin to pay closer attention to the race – that happens in nearly every presidential campaign cycle. It’s similar to state-level polls showing that this might finally be the year that Democrats win Texas, or South Carolina. In prior cycles, there have been polls showing that Republicans might break through in states like New Jersey or Oregon; those, too, never came to fruition.

It’s too early to tell whether these glimpses of the race tightening are an aberration or a trend, but it was enough to worry Sanders. He’s been much more supportive of Biden in 2020 than he was of Hillary Clinton in 2016, so they can’t just write off his criticism this time: They need him and his supporters to stay on board. He also offered a few very specific suggestions, including embracing a more liberal, populist, economic-focused message. This criticism should be a concern for Democrats not just this year, but also in the future. Regardless of whether they win or lose in November, the Democrats face an uncertain period of transition in the next few years, both nationally and here in Maine.

At the national level, if Biden manages to lose this election – which, to be clear, is entirely possible – the recriminations on the left will be massive and immediate. The progressive left who supported Sanders in the primaries will make the same point that he made last week: that Biden lost because he failed to embrace the liberal base. That will surely infuriate them, and they’ll rightly have the chance to send a massive “I told you so” to the Democratic establishment. Sanders won’t be the vehicle for that message – he’s exceedingly unlikely to run for president again –but the top staffers from his campaign will probably be steering the efforts. They’ll probably support a wave of challengers to incumbents and establishment-supported candidates in 2022, similar to the way the tea party did to the Republican Party.

Now, it’s not as if they haven’t been doing this already to a certain degree, but they’ve found mixed success so far: Despite a few high-profile wins, they’ve also had a string of failures, and the various groups supporting progressive candidates haven’t always been coordinating well. These failures should not be considered a sign of sure doom, but rather false starts. Despite popular belief that the tea party appeared out of nowhere in 2010, in fact there were inklings of populist conservative anger in prior elections.

Moreover, in two years this will be taking place against the backdrop of a vicious leadership battle for the control of the House Democratic Caucus. In securing her election as speaker in 2018, Nancy Pelosi pledged to step down in 2022, which should set up a wide-open race for leadership. If that happens during Biden’s first term as president, he may be able to exert his influence over the race. If he doesn’t move quickly toward enacting a few key progressive priorities during his first 100 days, though, that wing of the party may show their frustration with him early on, and the leadership race could be a skirmish in that battle.

This could all be a prelude to 2024, when Democrats may well have another presidential nomination fight on their hands. If Biden wins, that will probably be averted: Even if he doesn’t run for a second term, Kamala Harris would be well-positioned to win the nomination. Of course, if he loses, she wouldn’t be in as good a position; being the losing vice-presidential running mate generally isn’t helpful to one’s political career.

Right now, the Democratic Party appears to be mostly united in their quest to oust Donald Trump from the White House and regain control of Congress. The internecine conflict between the younger, progressive base and the establishment, though, is likely to rear its ugly head again after the election. The only real questions are exactly when that battle will flare up again, how destructive it will be and whether Republicans – either in Maine or elsewhere – will be organized enough to take advantage of it.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at:
Twitter: jimfossel

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