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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

The Awkward Coalition of Democrats and Lincoln Project Conservatives

The Lincoln Project, a political action committee consisting of anti-Trump current and former Republicans, is playing an interesting and prominent role in the 2020 election cycle. While the reaction among the pro-Trump right is predictable (calling them traitors and grifters, basically), feelings among the left seem mixed. Some see them as valuable allies, others as longstanding enemies who would undermine the Democratic Party from within. What's the best way to think about the Lincoln Project?

Many of the complaints I hear from the left about the Lincoln Project seem to come down along the lines of, "Don't trust them when they say they want to beat Trump. They just want to beat Trump." And, well, yeah, that's pretty much it. This is an attempt at a coalition for a specific short term goal. It could last longer than the November election -- Lincoln Project members have said they wouldn't seek to undermine a President Biden's legislative agenda -- but that remains to be seen.

Like the U.S./U.S.S.R. alliance to defeat the Nazis or the Lannister/Baratheon/Stark coalition to unseat the Mad King, this is basically a short term marriage of convenience. Democrats and Lincoln Project members don't really agree on much. They do agree on the need to deny Trump a second term, but in many cases, for different reasons.

This is not inherently a problem. As political scientist Erica Chenoweth is fond of saying, look around the room at your next coalition meeting; if you agree with everyone in the room, you're not in a coalition.

Coalitions are inherently unwieldy, ugly, and unstable. For participating members, they're deeply unsatisfying -- you have to hold your tongue and work collaboratively with people who you know are wrong about fundamental issues and who probably hurt people you care about. But these arrangements also tend to be more successful in politics than those in which individual members operate on their own.

A classic coalitional example is the vast array of liberal interest groups that opposed Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. This included such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. All had their own specific reasons for opposing Bork, including his stances on abortion, civil rights, civil liberties, and more. But each of those arguments might not have carried that much weight, or that many senators, on its own. This alliance instead worked together to craft a broadly acceptable message -- that Bork would upset a longstanding "balance" on the Court -- and lobbying strategy that contributed to the defeat of his nomination. (It included an ad featuring Gregory Peck!)

Now, an alliance between Democrats and the Lincoln Project isn't exactly the same sort of coalition. For one thing, Democrats have more leverage. That is, Democrats probably don't need the Lincoln Project to defeat Trump, while the Lincoln Project can't defeat Trump without the Democrats. (If the Project had much power to deny Trump the Republican nomination, that wasn't reflected in primary and caucus results earlier this year.)

And they're not exactly coordinating on messaging. The Lincoln Project ads strike me as of very high quality and watchability (although I have no idea if they're moving voters or if they're even designed to -- some of them seem to be made solely to get under Trump's skin). But some of them are very different from the sort of messages Democrats tend to run. It's hard to imagine a Democratic group running an ad mocking a candidate for physical disabilities.

Also, the two groups have different priorities for after Trump's defeat. Democrats have a policy agenda they hope to enact. Lincoln Project conservatives seem to have different goals, and I imagine those goals vary across the Project's members. Some may hope for some inroads into the Democratic governing coalition. Others probably seek a massive public repudiation of Trump as part of an effort to build up an anti-Trump wing within the GOP, fighting it out in the primaries of 2022 and 2024. Others may see themselves building a third party, or some sort of caucus with leverage between the two major parties.

But none of those vague long term plans invalidate the short term goal. Both Democrats and Lincoln Project conservatives stand to benefit from a resounding Biden victory, and each has skills in reaching particular sets of voters. This coalition likely won't survive very far into 2021 should Biden win, but it stands to enhance its members while it exists. And it's the sort of coalition that can actually chalk up victories.

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