Analysis — Last Tuesday, the media rejoiced after a series of local elections – as well as two governorships – were won by Democrats, an outcome that was widely interpreted as representing a broad repudiation of the Republican party and current president, Donald Trump. The Democratic party, having been soundly defeated last year in the November election and marked by internal schisms in its wake, now seems to be on the rise – apparently bolstered by Trump’s low approval ratings.
Though the series of wins may be interpreted as a win for the American “left” by much of the media, there is evidence that the result of this recent election is hardly the boon it has been made out to be. Indeed, since last year’s election, the Democrats have been widely criticized for their failure to take responsibility for why they lost last year – namely ignoring their base, particularly its progressive wing, in favor of its wealthy donors. Instead of taking responsibility, the party has made its general strategy to focusing on Trump – forming the so-called “resistance”— and harping upon Russiagate as supposed proof that last year’s electoral defeat was not the party’s fault.
By praising these ultimately divisive and troubling tactics as having led to the party’s minor wins last week, the media is suggesting that these methods are not only sound but effective, promising the American left and the general public more of the same from the Democratic party. Just as troubling is the fact that the two most touted of all of last week’s victories – the two governorships in New Jersey and Virginia – resulted in wins for two candidates that are hardly the repudiation of Trump and victory for the “left” and progressives that they are being made out to be.
Wall Street executive turned New Jersey “progressive”
Although touted as a “progressive” by The New York Times among other outlets, New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy – a former Wall Street executive and well-known mega-donor to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) – hardly represents a change from the type of candidate largely rejected by voters last year. However, Murphy was able to re-make himself quite easily given that he was conveniently pitted against the former running-mate of current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of the most unpopular governors in the state’s history. Even the fact that Murphy is a native of Massachusetts, not New Jersey, did little to hurt his chances.
Indeed, Murphy’s credentials and background are not remotely “progressive.” He worked at Goldman Sachs for over two decades and calls former Democratic New Jersey governor and financial criminal John Corzine – another veteran of the financial firm – a “friend.” Between 1989 and 2009, Murphy contributed nearly $1.5 million to federal candidates, with 94 percent of that money having gone to Democrats.
His generosity to the DNC did not go unnoticed. Upon leaving Goldman Sachs, Murphy was given the position of finance committee chair of the DNC under the party’s then-chair Howard Dean. The combination of his fund-raising prowess, which won him the nickname of the “vacuum cleaner,” and his massive donations to Barack Obama and his inauguration committee, earned him the ambassadorship to Germany. The DNC’s practice of providing wealthy donors and fundraisers with federal appointments was revealed following WikiLeaks’ publication of DNC documents last year.
Murphy also makes less than flattering appearances in leaked State Department cables and the Podesta emails, both published by Wikileaks. The leaked State Department cables did much to complicate Murphy’s time as ambassador to Germany, as they exposed his distaste for several high-ranking German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. The scandal led many top German officials to request that Murphy be recalled and replaced by the Obama administration.
In addition, in a 2014 email to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chair, Murphy admitted that he would use a 501(c)(4) organization – which is tax-exempt and free from disclosing its donors, but must remain focused on issues, not candidates – to aid his bid for governor, a practice that has become commonplace following the controversial Citizens United ruling. Later that year, Murphy founded a 501(c)(4) organization called New Start New Jersey, which Murphy claimed was not formed to aid him personally but was solely focused on issues important to the state’s middle class.
Furthermore, there is also precedent to suggest that Murphy’s governing style will hardly be as progressive as he has been made out to be. In 2005, former New Jersey governor Richard Codey appointed Murphy to chair a task force aiming to solve the state’s pension crisis. Murphy’s recommendations, which were later implemented, included raising the retirement age, basing pensions on a longer salary window, and selling off public assets.
Northam’s “progressive” facelift
The victory of Virginia’s new governor, Ralph Northam, over Trumpesque Republican Ed Gillespie is also being touted as a great win for the American left. Northam — the hand-picked successor of the state’s current governor, Terry McAuliffe — fought a fierce primary against Tom Perriello, a progressive populist who won endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Northam, throughout the primary, struggled to come across as progressive in comparison to Perriello, though his campaign billed him as a “progressive champion” anyway. It was noted on several occasions that the primary battle between Perriello and Northam was much like the Sanders-Clinton schism made plain in last year’s Democratic primary for president. Perriello was said to represent the progressive, Sanders-led wing of the Democratic party while Northam was said to be the flagbearer of the Clinton-led side that continues to dominate party politics.
Northam eventually edged out Perriello in the primary, partly thanks to his attempts to paint himself as a progressive who could work with both parties. This is likely because, as his history clearly shows, Northam has more in common with most conservatives than with progressives. Northam admitted to having voted for George W. Bush not once but twice and had previously touted himself as a “conservative-tinted Democrat. “I don’t consider myself as a liberal. I consider myself as a moderate person. I think the less government, the better,” Northam told the Roanoke Times in 2013.
Further confirming his conservative streak has been Northam’s strong opposition to Obamacare, which he has called “the most spineless, unprincipled cruelty that I have ever seen come from a legislative body.” Northam was also approached by Virginia Republicans twice in attempts to woo him – unsuccessfully – to switch parties in keeping with his conservative leanings.
Northam’s campaign for governor was also mired in controversy. For example, Northam came under fire for “subtle racism” after numerous fliers for his candidacy airbrushed out the picture of his African-American running mate Justin Fairfax. In addition, Northam notably stated that he would side with Republicans in opposing sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants – a measure controversially championed by Trump — only to “flip-flop” days later. Northam’s change of heart angered enough Virginians to prompt a protest that interrupted his victory speech.
Watch | Democrat Ralph Northam’s victory speech interrupted by protesters
Reinforcement for Democratic business as usual
The victories of Murphy and Northam last week, in light of these realities, should hardly be celebrated as a gift to American progressives. If anything, it will convince the troubled Democratic Party to continue its mistreatment of Sanders supporters and progressives — most recently seen in the party’s “purge” of Sanders supporters from key positions — and to favor wealthy interests over those of the average American.
Indeed, last week’s election is now being used to justify the very shortcomings recently highlighted by party insider Donna Brazile, shortcomings which – despite the Trump administration – had led the Democrats to lose several special elections earlier this year. However, with Democrats winning this time around, the DNC now sees its strategies of purging progressives from its ranks, blame-shifting, and focusing on Trump instead of creating new, progressive policy as a winning strategy.
Thus, there is little to celebrate here. Big money remains in politics and remains the lifeblood of the DNC and its Republican counterpart. The two-party system and its illusion of choice is following the course of past election cycles, as voters seem to shuffle towards Democrats because – a year later – they are now the “lesser of two evils.” Murphy and Northam are not “progressive” and they certainly do not represent a “change in culture” for the Democratic party.
Top photo | New Jersey gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy, right, and Lt. Gov. nominee Sheila Oliver wave to supporters as balloons drop during their election night victory party at the Asbury Park Convention Hall, Nov. 7, 2017, in Asbury Park, N.J. (AP/Julio Cortez)