Commentary: Can the Democrats keep it together?

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton takes the stage with musician Pharrell Williams (L) and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (R) at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 3, 2016. 

Alex Brandon, AP

Mike Pence, despite his recent protestations to the contrary, is clearly considering the possibility of running for president in 2020.

And why wouldn't he?

Given Donald Trump's anemic approval ratings, and the metastasizing Russia scandal, it would be political malpractice for Pence not to be preparing for the possibility. It would also be a disservice to the GOP, which may come to count on him to keep the White House in Republican hands. And like every politician of his stature, Pence clearly wants to be president, and a Trump implosion is likely his best shot of ever getting the chance.

This is not to say that Trump is now doomed, or that he's invariably heading towards impeachment. In all likelihood, he'll be the Republican nominee in 2020, and will enjoy the profound electoral advantages given to any presidential incumbent. Despite all the baggage he has and continues to accumulate, he's still, at this very early stage, more likely to be reelected than not.

For more on that point, look at the internal dysfunction of the Democratic Party, which shows no signs of abating in the near future. "Resistance has given the Democrats the illusion of unity, but the reality is deeply conflicted," Franklin Foer wrote in a piece published this week by The Atlantic. "Two of the party's largest concerns—race and class—reside in an increasing state of tension, a tension that will grow as the party turns toward the next presidential election."

A preview of this looming intraparty battle came when Kamala Harris, California's newly elected Democratic senator, was floated as a potential standard bearer for the Party's establishment. Almost instantly, leftists took aim at Harris and other candidates touted by the moderates, in particular former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Cory Booker, a New Jersey senator.

Given the Democrats' preoccupation with racial issues, it's worth noting that Harris, Patrick, and Booker are black. The African-American vote is essential to Democrats' success at the national level, a fact that's been obscured somewhat with their newfound fixation on the white working class. Hillary Clinton prevailed against Bernie Sanders in large part due to her support among black voters in the 2016 primary, providing a useful roadmap for establishmentarian Democrats looking to stave off a left-wing takeover of their party. And given the fall-off in minority turnout last cycle, there's an argument to be made that the Party shouldn't risk running a white nominee in the near future.

If establishment Democrats successfully rally around someone like Harris, it would also open up her left-wing detractors to accusations of racism and sexism, however unfounded. Accusing opponents of bigotry can be a bit of a reflex with some liberals; an undercurrent of Foer's article is the tendency of modern Democrats to not only view Republicans as hopelessly racist, but many of their own voters as well. Neera Tanden, a longtime Clinton ally and president of the Center for American Progress, has already begun to insinuate that race has something to do with leftist objections to Harris and Booker.

Needless to say, a Democratic primary openly fought along the lines of race and class is likely to get astoundingly ugly. And given the likelihood that more than a dozen Democrats could easily wind up running in 2020, each attempting to break out via naked appeals to various subsections of the base, it's not hard to imagine the Party hobbling into the general election after a contentious, bruising primary battle that leaves them weaker and less unified than they are today.

The cultural dynamics of the Democratic Party may also preclude a concerted effort to win back the white working class that was largely responsible for Trump's crucial victories in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. Regardless of faction, nearly every Democratic-leaning intellectual and pundit agrees that the Party must adopt a more populist message. The question, which is sure to bedevil all Democratic aspirants for the presidency in 2020, is what the populism will look like, and which demographics it should prioritize. 

Does populism mean some combination single payer, a minimum wage hike, and a massive expansion in the welfare state? Leftists say yes, though all of that would necessitate trillions of dollars in new taxes, which could scare away the moderate professionals Democrats have been cultivating for years.

Does populism mean a continued focus on identity politics, increased immigration, and charges of institutional discrimination? Well, these are the cultural fault lines that in large part scared away white working class voters in the first place, and doubling down will probably alienate them further.

The obvious compromise for Democrats is to combine both ways of thinking, which would mark the Party's transformation into an aggressively left-wing coalition in the mold of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In this scenario, the Democrats would not pick between class war and culture war, instead choosing to fight the Republicans on both fronts. Perhaps there's a hidden pining among the broad electorate for this kind of unabashed leftism, but chances are there isn't, and that such a pivot would result in moderates fleeing the party en masse.

A profound leftward shift could pave the way for an independent centrist candidate to pick off Democratic votes, which might allow Trump to win reelection despite subterranean approval ratings. This would be similar to the dynamic that's emerged in Maine in recent years, where the flamboyantly right-wing Republican Paul LePage is now in his second term as governor.

Democrats are likely to have a lot going for them in 2020. Regardless of whether the GOP is led by Trump or Pence, it's difficult to imagine either being held in high esteem by voters. But what the Republicans do have is an opposition on the verge of war with itself, and that alone could ensure their continued political dominance into the next decade.   

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.