Democrats Look For A Winning Path

July 12, 2017
Mark Chiusano

The battle for the future of the Democratic Party is being fought at places like the Nathan Hale Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Huntington Station.

That’s where freshman Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) held a town hall Monday night. Yet despite Suozzi’s admirable commitment to near-monthly sessions, parked cars overflowed onto the grass, and attendees clamored for question time. Because a number of them were there to push him to support single-payer health care.

Suozzi represents one vision for how Democrats might emerge from the surprising political wilderness where they find themselves in the era of Donald Trump, considering the cascading miscues and enduring Russia scandal engulfing the Republican president. That vision does not include the more progressive dream of creating a single-payer health care system.

Suozzi is a self-described “reasonable” person, a pragmatic member of the Problem Solvers and Quiet Skies caucuses in the House of Representatives. He opened the forum touting bipartisan relationships he’d developed so far in Congress, including joining a bipartisan gym crew.

He says there are issues he “won’t move on” when Republicans come calling, including opposition to the GOP health care plan that looks to leave millions of Americans uninsured. Yet he remains sure that what may be a relatively moderate district would see tax increases or the threat of them as non-starters. Hence, his support of single-payer health care “on an academic basis” only.

That’s not good enough for members of the grass-roots Long Island Activists and other like-minded attendees, some of whom showed up to demand that Suozzi co-sponsor a House bill making single-payer a reality.

For people like Joseph Sarno of Dix Hills, Democrats “need to fall in line” for a more progressive platform. He and others implored Suozzi on that front on Monday, as they had in the past. Suozzi addressed one of Long Island Activists’ founders, Ron Widelec of Commack, by name.

But like much of national politics, the two sides are at an impasse. Should Democrats double down on the seriously progressive initiatives reintroduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, seeing that as the way to combat Democratic apathy? Or is the lesson from the 2016 campaign that Democrats should tailor arguments to a more local tune, edging out wins wherever they can get them even if their ideology is not always perfectly consistent?

Armed with limited information gleaned from special elections and the reading of social media moods, partisans on both sides of the Democratic divide are preparing the way forward for the party into 2018 and beyond. They are weighing whether the losses of national-style Democrats in high-profile, well-funded races mean the party needs to find candidates more amenable to their regions. Or does the win of someone like Christine Pellegrino — a Sanders delegate from West Islip with union backing who won a South Shore Assembly seat in a Trump district in a low-turnout race on May 23 — imply that progressive ideals are winning?

That was all in the caldron for Suozzi to deal with on Monday. He noted that to change things, you need to win. The activists might add that to win elections, the candidates need to change. There does not appear to be much chance of rapprochement.

But in reality, there is plenty of room between the hard goal of single-payer health care and the moral nightmare of the GOP plan. That middle ground could be something both sides of the Democratic divide could support. Coming to some sort of truce on issues like this when it matters — at election time — will be the true test of 2018 and after for the party. If either side abandons the other, the wilderness may be unbroken.

Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.