Democrats have such a nasty habit of trashing themselves that it's remarkable they ever win an election. Take the situation right now. They have, effectively, two presidential candidates. One, Hillary Clinton, looked like a sure winner and a shoo-in to be the next president. The other, Bernie Sanders, is unelectable.
Clinton's good prospects were only improved by the emergence of the ignorant, racist Donald Trump and the hated wingnut Ted Cruz as leaders in the Republican race. That's true even though she's far from a really strong candidate, and can't seem to generate much enthusiasm.
However, Clinton has an unexpected problem: She's currently being tripped up by the unlikeliest of foes: a 74-year-old Jewish senator from tiny Vermont, who really isn't even a Democrat.
Until he got into the race for president last year, Bernie Sanders was the longest serving independent in the history of Congress, with more than a generation in the House and Senate. He calls himself a democratic socialist. But his voting record reads like that of a liberal Democrat, as the New York Times pointed out recently:
Mr. Sanders does not want to nationalize the steel mills or the auto companies or even the banks. Like Mrs. Clinton, he believes in a mixed economy, where capitalist institutions are mediated through taxes and regulation. He just wants more taxes and more regulation than Mrs. Clinton does. He certainly seems like a regular Democrat, only more so.
Despite those facts, Sanders hangs on to his description of himself as a socialist, a word he himself admits makes many Americans "very, very nervous."
"Socialist" has long been a dirty word in American politics, a slur thrown at liberals that evokes Cold War-era images of bread lines, government-controlled economies and authoritarian regimes.
It still is a dirty word. Not necessarily among members of the Democratic party's left wing, but for fully half the American people. A Gallup poll last June showed 50% of Americans would refuse to vote for a well-qualified socialist candidate for president, a larger negative percentage than for any other category Gallup chose to ask about: including a Jew, gay or lesbian, Muslim or atheist. Clearly, Sanders' repeated description of himself as a socialist is his way of acknowledging that he knows he's not electable, but is running simply to move the Democratic agenda to the left.
In fact, the senator has managed to make the word "socialism" less tainted in New Hampshire, where TPM's composite PollTracker shows him ahead of Clinton by 7 points. In Iowa, the first caucus state, the Real Clear Politics poll average shows him trailing Clinton by only 6. But nationwide, Clinton continues to hold a double-digit lead against him, although that lead has narrowed from more than 25 points in both the poll composites to about a dozen points in recent weeks.
Young Democratic voters favor Sanders, especially because of his endorsement of Medicare for everyone, more emphasis than Clinton on raising the minimum wage, limiting income inequality, climate change and taking a tougher stand against business and for more regulation.
The problem is, as Clinton has been at pains to point out, that the current Congressional realities make those goals unrealistic, and that trying to pursue them, especially expanding Medicare in the present political climate, might not only fail but eliminate Obamacare.
Today's situation could end up reminiscent of two previous Democratic disasters: The decision of too many liberals to stay home instead of voting for Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968 because they saw him as too supportive of President Johnson's Viet Nam war; and the decision of hundreds of thousands of liberals to vote for Independent candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 instead of Democrat Al Gore.
Humphrey's loss gave this country the criminal President Richard Nixon. And Nader took away enough votes from Gore, especially in Florida, to hand this country over to George W. Bush, arguably the worst president in modern American history.
Idealistic young Democrats and idealistic or thoughtless older ones risk the same kind of result if they vote for Bernie Sanders in a Democratic primary or caucus. He cannot win a general election. Voting for him in the primaries -- or staying home if he doesn't win the nomination -- will only assure the election of another Republican president.