The debate between supporters of Hillary Clinton and supporters of Bernie Sanders goes to the essential core of the Democratic Party: what it means, historically and contemporaneously, to be a Democrat. Is theirs the party of high-minded ambition and progressive government or the party of tired centrism that settles for the status quo, often rendering it barely distinguishable from its Republican rival?

While their national convention in Philadelphia got off to a rocky start from the lingering tremors along the Sanders-Clinton fault line, the Democrats have a chance to reassemble the diverse and powerful coalition that made Barack Obama president for two terms.


More than that, with Sanders' push, there is real opportunity to reconnect the party to its core identity. It took the Bernie Revolution to remind an entire generation of Clinton Democrats that their party was once proudly progressive, enacting laws that lifted Americans out of poverty, that educated and fed children, that made food and drinking water safe, that regulated industries, protected consumers, provided for the elderly, advanced civil rights and expanded health care.

It's a rich history that, after Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980, Democrats seemed to disown. They came to fear backlash from the right. They ran away from liberalism and its 20th-century accomplishments. A new kind of pragmatic, middling Democrat emerged during Bill Clinton's time in the White House, and somewhere along the way, instead of establishing a new identity, Democrats lost theirs.

The Obama presidency — or, specifically, the passage of the Patient Care and Affordable Care Act in 2010 — gave Democrats an opportunity to define themselves as true progressives again. But two years after the passage of Obamacare, there was hardly a congressional Democrat willing to own up to having voted for it. Fortunately, the law survives despite them.

Republicans and conservatives are not so timid; they have been loud, relentless and sometimes even effective in attacking Obamacare and just about anything else that someone deigns to call progressive. Many of them take this position against their own best interests and that of their constituents. During the Obama presidency, Republicans became fully and officially the party that says no to just about everything.

Of course, that's the easiest thing to do. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who has never learned how to walk forward."

Democrats — real, in-the-bones Democrats — have it much tougher. They're expected to say yes now and then. They're expected to be forward-thinking. They're expected to accept the legitimate role of government in efforts to improve the lives of the citizens it serves. They are supposed to stand up for all of us, but particularly those on the margins, who need a hand up.

On Monday, the four Democrats on the seven-member Baltimore County Council will have an opportunity to flash their progressive bonafides, if they have any, by voting for a bill that would end a long-standing discriminatory practice that has kept low-income people from moving to better neighborhoods throughout the county.

Under the bill, no landlord would be able to reject prospective tenants based on their source of income, including the federal housing vouchers commonly called Section 8. In a county with no public housing, these vouchers are critical in helping low-income families find a decent place to live. The vouchers make up the difference between what renters can afford, based on their income, and the full amount of the rent.

"Most voucher holders have jobs, and, like many hardworking Americans, they get up and go to work every day," Andrea Van Arsdale, the county planning director, told the council last week. "The problem is, they can't get enough work or their jobs simply don't pay enough to meet the housing costs in Baltimore County. And, just like many hardworking Americans these days, they need some help."

There's been opposition, of course, and critics claim it has to do with property rights or bureaucracy or government overreach. Some simply resent that poor people get a rent subsidy. Some attribute to Section 8 all kinds of evils that have nothing to do with the program or the people on it. Some envision suburban ghettos. As Van Arsdale noted, we've heard it all before.

"We've heard those same arguments throughout this country's history," she said, "when African-Americans, Catholics, women, Irish, Italians and other immigrant groups, or gay couples tried to relocate to different neighborhoods to better the lives of their families."

An exhaustive study, published last year by Harvard economists, showed that poor kids whose families used rent vouchers to move out of high-poverty areas and into middle-class neighborhoods ended up much better off in terms of jobs, income, marriage and education than those who remained behind.

That means subsidizing poor families in this way resulted in significant progress in one generation, as program designers had hoped. The program deserves further support from the Baltimore County Council — at least from the four who still call themselves Democrats.