What Chafee, Webb Exits Tell Us About Today’s Democrats

The two candidates’ withdrawal shows that America’s Democratic Party is moving to the left.

Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee attends an event in Providence, May 5, 2014
Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee attends an event in Providence, May 5, 2014 (FWS)

Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb both dropped out of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating contest in the United States this week. Their exits not only underscored the inevitability of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton winning the 2016 nomination; they also revealed that the battle within the Democratic Party is now between pragmatists like herself and a far left energized by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

Chafee and Webb never stood a chance of winning the nomination. As the Atlantic Sentinel most recently argued last month, Clinton is the favorite by far. FiveThirtyEight shows that her support from party actors — the donors, elected and party officials and other influencers who effectively pick the nominee — is stronger than any presidential candidate’s in recent history.

Sanders, a self-declared socialist and independent, is a serious challenge to Clinton in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But even if he ekes out a victory somewhere, the former New York senator can count on the Midwestern and Southern states that vote next to bail her out.

She is also the favorite of middle-class voters in states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia who just might vote for a reasonable Republican candidate if they see the Democratic Party veering too far to the left. And, to come full circle, electability plays a big role in the decisionmaking process of party actors again.

Still, Sanders is meaningful candidate in a way that Chafee and Webb weren’t.

The latter positioned themselves on the right of the Democratic Party. Chafee was even a Republican before he switched parties. Webb ran as an old-fashioned Southern Democrat who cared more about gun than minority rights. He also advocated a more muscular foreign policy than Clinton when her views on national security are already a bit more hawkish than President Barack Obama’s.

Neither was in tune with where the Democratic Party is today. Clinton is. She has come around in favor of gay marriage and recently criticized a Pacific trade deal she supported as secretary of state.

Her lurch to the left may be less to do about Sanders per se than the especially young voters he appeals to.

This website argued in August that the generation that came of age during the recession didn’t live through the failures of the big-government policies Sanders advocate. Nor did they live through or do they necessarily remember the prosperity free-market economics brought in the 1980s and 90s.

Clinton’s husband, Bill, moved the Democratic Party to the middle as president at the time to assure middle-class voters that he wouldn’t undo what Republicans had built. She must now do a careful balancing act: convince leftwingers whose first choice is Sanders that she shares some of their concerns without alienating the vast middle class that will determine the outcome of next year’s election.

“I’m a progressive that likes to get things done,” Clinton’s said during her party’s first presidential debate earlier this month. Few doubt the second part of that statement. It’s the first that’s tricky.