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November 15, 2012 12:28 PM The Coming “Struggle For the Soul of the Democratic Party”

By Ed Kilgore

Parties who have just won a big presidential election don’t usually have to worry a lot about internal strife. Certainly there’s little or no sign of disunity in the election returns themselves. Obama won 92% of self-identified Democrats, up three points from his performance in his near-landslide victory of 2008, and up eight points from Bill Clinton’s performance in the last Democratic presidential re-election in 1996. According to Gallup’s weekly job approval rating numbers, around Election Day Obama had a 95% positive rating from self-described “liberal Democrats,” an 89% rating from “moderate Democrats,” and a 78% rating from the small but much-discussed ranks of “conservative Democrats.”

As was widely noted on Election Night, the Senate Democratic Caucus is far less likely than its most recent predecessors to be dominated by a moderate-to-conservative “rump” faction ready to offer cooperation with Republicans for the right price. In the House, the fractious Blue Dog Coalition, despite several upset wins, will see its membership, decimated in 2010, decline further from 18 to 15.

But underneath all these indicators of unity and ideological coherence, and the defensive crouch in which all Democrats found themselves during and after the 2010 midterms, there are unmistakably intraparty tensions on a significant range of issues domestic and international. Many of them go back to the more visible fissures of the Clinton presidency. And several could very rapidly emerge quite soon, depending on how the administration and Democratic congressional leaders handle the negotiations with Republicans over tax and spending issues during and perhaps immediately after the current lame-duck session.

At a minimum, if Obama accepts as part of some “grand bargain” on fiscal issues actual benefit cuts in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, and/or major structural changes in how these programs operate, there will be a backlash among Democrats in and out of Congress that could be significantly fiercer than the one favoring a “public option” which for a while threatened the enactment of the Affordable Care Act of 2010. And now that the threat of a Republican president has subsided, we can also expect to hear much more vocal Democratic objections to Obama’s foreign policy, particularly its continuation of the “war on terror” and its heavy use of drone strikes in the Greater Middle East. Long-simmering progressive resentment of Obama administration positions on civil liberties, and on its support for relatively high defense spending, will also re-emerge for the same reason.

There is, however, a paradox at the center of any prospects for a revolt-from-the-left against Obama. Nothing mobilizes intra-party opposition quite like disgruntlement with a president, as LBJ, George H.W. Bush, and at some points Bill Clinton could have told you. But as I often observed in dismissing the prospects of any significant primary challenge to Obama in 2012 despite occasionally white-hot anger from liberal elites, it is almost impossible to launch a left-bent intraparty challenge to a Democratic Party leader who has a strong personal bond with minority voters (this was true to some extent even with Jimmy Carter back in 1980, and also had something to do with the failure of unhappy liberals to challenge Clinton in 1996, and neither man had remotely the kind of support among minority voters that Obama has enjoyed since he first announced for president).

So any “struggle for the soul of the party,” even if it’s launched in opposition to some of Obama’s positions, will probably focus on the post-Obama future. It’s fascinating, therefore, to observe the possibility that Democrats could continue their intraparty detente by uniting around the 2016 candidacy of Hillary Clinton, whose 2008 candidacy aroused significant progressive opposition, much of it owing to misgivings about her husband (buried during his last two years in office as liberals rallied around his fight against impeachment). If HRC’s current numbers are any indication, she could all but rout the field should she make an early and decisive move towards a presidential candidacy. What’s less certain is what sort of ideological profile she might present, given her complex background and image.

If HRC does not run (her current posture, lest we forget), then the odds become very high that long-disgruntled progressives will seek to utilize the 2016 nomination process to move the party away from the perceived Obama mushiness on issues ranging from banking and corporate regulation to the public role in health care (Obamacare’s implementation will not dispose of sentiment favoring the eventual emergence of a single-payer system), and from action on climate change to a post-Cold-War, post-GWOT foreign policy and defense structure.

Those elements in the Democratic Party who applaud Obama as a “centrist reformer” who proved once and for all that the Clinton legacy provides the sole path to a Democratic Majority (arguing, quite naturally, that it’s no mistake the two men, plus fellow “centrist” Jimmy Carter, have been the only Democratic presidential winners since LBJ) will find their own presidential champions, and many long-submerged intraparty controversies may finally come back into full light.

It is, in fact, just a matter of time. Democrats do not, after all, have some unifying symbol like Ronald Reagan who commands universal obedience, and do not tend to view party ideology as a fixed point in an ever-changing universe. In the days ahead I’ll post more about particular issues that could divide Democrats, or at least provoke strong disagreement, and the implications they might have for politics generally.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • T2 on November 15, 2012 12:43 PM:

    you can speculate about inter-party fighting all you like, but the elephant in the room is that Obama is president for the next four years and then gone. He can do what he wants without worrying about "progressive" hand-wringing, etc. He is in charge for 4 years. And the GOP is in disarray and withering on the vine. After 2014, the Dem nominee race will begin and frankly I don't see anyone out there. Hillary? I don't know.
    If this Obama term is viewed as a success, I'd expect Joe Biden to declare. If there are others, I sure don't see them now.

  • JMG on November 15, 2012 12:49 PM:

    Ed, I don't think I get the point of your post. Some Democratic presidential candidate will run in 2016 by appealing to the ideological base of the party? That's a big deal? It happens in every open Dem presidential season. Remember John Edwards? That wasn't so long ago. Howard Dean, Tom Harkin, Morris Udall, it's a long list. If Hilary runs, she'll get it. If she doesn't, the "soul" of the party will be defined by the individual who does. The base will support him or her as they always do. The only difference is, the Democratic base doesn't shut up about its unhappiness the way the Republicans do.

  • Mimikatz on November 15, 2012 1:02 PM:

    I hope the fissure in the next election is generational. Look, people who are 50 and younger are the ones who have to live in the future, and it is time they were allowed to take their place in leadership in 2016, if not sooner. Hillary is great but too old to be able to run for ttwo terms and so is Biden. Face it. It is time for a younger generation of leaders to goose this country on climate change and get it off the deficit as a means of gutting the safety net kick. The safety net is precisely what we are going to need in the next several years A larger agency to deal with disasters. Much better planning for alleviating damage in future disasters. Clean and green energy. A newer, smarter energy grid. An end to coal and oil.

    Thank you fir your service, Boomers, now please enjoy your retirement and do lend us your wisdom. But 2016 is time fir a younger generation to take over the reins.

    And lest you confuse me with Luke Russert I am 70 years old and understand just how wonderful retirement is.

  • hornblower on November 15, 2012 1:04 PM:

    This long time Democrat cares little about the "soul" of the Party. As long as the Republicans keep on their present course a "mind" will be enough.
    The party will continue to have it's moderate and progressive wings and many people will judge a matter by it's merits not by identification with a particular group. Those who insist that their way is the only one will play the role of the "angry young man". And so it goes.

  • c u n d gulag on November 15, 2012 1:25 PM:

    I'm with mimikatz,
    I'm 54, and liked the fact that Obama was younger than I was.
    Don't get me wrong, I liked Hillary, too - but I liked Obama better.

    Normally, I'd say Hillary or Biden would be fine choices. But they both will be a bit too long in the tooth.
    Joe will be, what, 74?
    And Hillary will be, 69, I think.
    Another problem with that thinking, is that we'd also have to take Elizabeth Warren out of the equation - she'll be 67 in '16.

    If any of them run, I'd support all of them, and try to pick out the one that I think is the best.

    But I'd like to so Sherrod Brown and/or Kirsten Gillibrand run. I like Patrick Duval also.
    Anyone but Andrew Cuomo. LOOOOOOVED his father! Him? Eh... Not so much.
    Still, if he ends up being the nominee, I will support him.

  • bdop4 on November 15, 2012 1:31 PM:

    I second Mimikatz. Democrats need fresh blood, and a clean break from the corporate-held status quo. As much as Republicans need some introspection (I personally hope they keep digging), Democrats need to examine their role in creating the current state of inequality. The debate must continue.

    Also:

    "The only difference is, the Democratic base doesn't shut up about its unhappiness the way the Republicans do." - JMG

    I consider that to be a feature and not a bug.

  • bdop4 on November 15, 2012 1:35 PM:

    c u n d gulag,

    Sherrod Brown would be my dream choice. He understands the challenges, can communicate effectively to the midwestern voter and has the integrity and work ethic to deliver on his promises.

  • troglodyte on November 15, 2012 1:54 PM:

    I agree with MimiKatz and others that the next Dem Pres nominee should be younger than Clinton/Biden/Warren. Im a boomer, too, but until the boomers fade from the presidential races we will be cursed with refighting the 1960s yet again. We have two years for a crop of GenX leaders to distinguish themselves. There is enough time -- recall that Obama entered the Senate only in 2004.

  • Dredd on November 15, 2012 2:01 PM:

    The Republicans have done well beyond bad with the reality of climate change, but the Democratic party is still infected with some of the denier memes too. That can be fixed if we try.

  • geekalot on November 15, 2012 2:30 PM:

    On the whole I am on the liberal side of things, but not on every issue. I suspect there are a lot of people like me who are tired of the whole lib/con dynamic, who want to see some real pragmatism punctuated with a few well-placed stands. For starters, give up on gun control--it is a liberal loser in this country just as gay rights is a conservative loser. If I had more say in Democratic priorities I would choose to make my stands in the following:

    Health care- Use an incremental approach to a single payer system. If we try to go for the whole thing then ignorant people who would benefit will be convinced it is evil and it will never happen.

    Education- Two things here...First, top down standards that insist on tying teachers' livelihoods to student test scores is wrong wrong wrong. This ensures only that teachers will damn well teach to the test instead of building critical thinking. Second, college should not require decades of loan payments. This is stupid and is killing our nation's competitiveness by reducing the number of people willing and able to get the education they need.

    Third, we must develop a long term approach to energy...green yes, but if we are serious about CO2 reductions we may need to consider a few modern atomic power plants to get us there. The technology really has improved. Yes, there are risks, but green energy just isn't ready to take up all the need yet.

    I know you are not all going to agree, but we need to start the conversations now. Peace.

  • Anonymous on November 15, 2012 2:39 PM:

    i dont know if Democrats need a physically young candidate as long as the candidates have young ideas, in touch with the new reality of 21st century. Biden and Hillary Clinton definately passed that test, proving their understanding of the world during the Obama tenure.

    Truman after FDR and LBJ after Kennedy did a great job cementing the transformative progressive work that FDR and Kennedy previously started.
    Bush Sr cemented Reagan's conservatism. Reagan and Bush Sr were old but their ideas were fresh at the time.

    But progress made during the Clinton's successful 2 terms got mostly destroyed by Bush Jr.

    We need another Democratic president to cement Obama's legacy to be irreversible.
    But i dont think that person needs to be young. A boring, old white guy can do it.

  • beejeez on November 15, 2012 2:51 PM:

    Even thinking about this before mid-2014 is a waste of energy. Right now, Dems should stay busy pissing on the remaining embers from the GOP campfire.

  • Peter C on November 15, 2012 3:05 PM:

    I haven't detected anyone with whom to struggle. We all seem to me to be basically on the same page. I agree with @beejeez; I'd rather concentrate on struggling with the GOP and win back the House in 2014.

  • TCinLA on November 15, 2012 3:09 PM:

    I too have been giving some thought to "new blood." I have a thought about that: We desperately need the four terms it took FDR to cement what reforms he put into the system. We need four terms, but now can only keep one person around for two. Thus, we need a second person who will build on the first two terms of the first. We also need new leadership to keep that going.

    So, my idea: HRC runs in 2016 (because she will win). Yes, she won't be able to run in 2020, but in 2016 she runs with a younger VP who is as qualified to be President as Al Gore who ran with her husband was. Then in 2020 she retires, throws her full-throated support to the VP (something Bill couldn't do in 2000, but it would have gotten Gore elected with the Republican theft unable to happen). That person runs and wins, and can then run for a second term. We now have five terms of progressive policies implemented. They're in place and working, making it damn hard for any Republican left standing in 2028 to turn them back. Power has moved to the newer generations, people like me can die happy (since I'll be 84 then).

    HRC would be the perfect "hand-over" candidate. We pass it on to the new generation with both race and sex barriers at the top broken. That's a pretty good legacy.

  • T2 on November 15, 2012 3:16 PM:

    I'll remind all the boomer here (of which I am one) that back in our heyday we all thought "wait until our guys get in there...it will be love and peace - no wars"
    But we got Clinton and GWBush and now Obama....still fighting wars and still arguing politics even more viciously than before. And on the GOP side, it is the Ryan's, Cantor's and other young (relatively) TeaBaggers that are making a mockery of the national political process.
    My point - younger isn't necessarily better. But not necessarily worse, either. Watch the tape of the Biden/Ryan debate and tell me which generation won.

  • Shane Taylor on November 15, 2012 3:26 PM:

    I expect there is a real threat of benefit cuts in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, but how likey are major structural changes? And what kinds of changes, means-testing of benefits??

  • T2 on November 15, 2012 4:04 PM:

    @shane - the only change to Social Security that is required is modestly raising the earnings cut-off point for contributions from around $112,000 to, say, $125,000.
    That would make the benefit solvent for a very, very long time. And everyone knows this...everyone. Up to now, a kook named Grover Norquist has forbid any such move, but now would be the time for Obama to raise that limit. Sure he'd make a tiny section of the workforce pay a bit more and they'd be mad, but he's not running for office any more...and he'd be remembered as saving Social Security and keeping the eligible ages right where they are. Conservatiave Republicans, on the other hand, want to eliminate Social Security so they simply vote against anything that can help it.

  • keith Roberts on November 15, 2012 4:31 PM:

    I applaud you for trying to puncture the bubble of complacency that seems to expand daily among Democrats. Obama put together a great campaign, but it was an operation the Republicans can readily learn from and outdo in the near future. Ditto with how to use their big bucks more effectively. And although the Dems got around a lot of the Republican voter suppression efforts, they will learn from their errors and return more effective than ever. The reality is that despite their superior 2012 campaign, the Democrats were very lucky to prevail. Obama made only one significant mistake, his first debate performance, and it nearly sank him. Had he made more... Or had the tape of Romney's 47% remark not surfaced, or had he or a better campaigner emerged earlier in the Republican primaries, or had the Republicans picked less absurd and scary Senate candidates, Obama might well have lost in a landslide due to the economy and widespread latent racism. We are still living in a world in which Republican voter suppression works, and they have an enormous $ advantage.

  • barkleyg on November 15, 2012 5:05 PM:

    "(arguing, quite naturally, that it’s no mistake the two men, plus fellow “centrist” Jimmy Carter, have been the only Democratic presidential winners since LBJ) "

    OK All of our winners have been centrist; no REAL Lefties allowed.

    I'm too lazy to look this up: When was the last time a REPUG Centrist won? For REPUGS, you is FAR RIGHT, Center Right is too far left.

    That isone of the many differences between the "WE party" and the "ME Party" !

  • Doug on November 15, 2012 7:05 PM:

    Keith Roberts, you're quite correct in saying that Democrats shouldn't get complacent. The rest of your post is, I fear, nothing but scare-mongering.
    The ONLY way for Republicans to regain control of the national government is by adopting policies that will appeal to people that aren't old and white. Their base won't let them do that. Further attempts at voter suppression runs the risk of backfiring - just as it did THIS time. Rove blew through $3-400 MILLION in support of, roughly 30 candidates; I believe 9 or 10 won. There's more if you want it.
    I do think any fight for the "soul" of the Democratic Party is useless, the term is inapplicable. The general statement "We support the middle class and helping those not in it to reach it" just about covers any raison d' etre for Democrats. Helping make HCI affordable helps the middle class and those wishing to join it. Addressing climate change does as well; the middle class and poorer don't have various other homes to take refuge in, among other things. Reducing income inequality helps the middle class and those aspiring to middle class-hood.
    The list goes on and on, but one thing does stand out for me concerning the "soul" of the Democratic Party: faced with the choice of an attainable improvement or not attaining something that would be better, Democrats had better support the attainable - if there is any "soul" in our party it's the pragmatic acceptance that we can't always get everything we want.
    "Half a loaf", if that's all one can get, is ALWAYS better than "none" and an excellent way to run a political party...

  • Left Wing Conservative on November 15, 2012 9:22 PM:

    I must have misunderstood the post. I thought Ed was discussing the here and now. The horribly named 'fiscal cliff' is what is uppermost in my mind and I see it as a real opportunity to see if the Democratic members of Congress can remember who votes them in as opposed to who finances their campaigns. The constant drumbeat since the election that we must make a grand bargain which means cuts to entitlements is really frightening. The only voice of reason in the Congress so far has been that of Bernie Sanders. I just finished reading George Packer's fantastic profile piece called "Washington Man" in the 10/29 issue of The New Yorker which sadly is behind a pay wall. Well worth paying to read it. It details how in the last 30 years D.C. has become only about the money on both sides of the aisle. I frankly don't understand why conservatives want to get rid of, or at least seriously disable, Medicare and Medicaid but I understand that Wall Street still wants to get its dirty paws on our Social Security. This is no time to be complacent, regardless of the reelection of Obama (who I don't totally trust) or the more progressive new members. And I don't think minority voters will be any happier about cuts to entitlements than any one else.

  • Peter Principle on November 15, 2012 10:57 PM:

    I think the reason that Obama is unchallengeable within the Democratic Party -- emotionally as well as practically -- is not because of his bond with minority voters, but because, like, Clinton he has led the party to two glorious victories in a row -- the second one (like Clinton's first) against great odds.

    As Prince Faisal tells the American journalist in Lawrence of Arabia: "In this country, Mr. Bentley, the man who gives victory in battle is prized beyond every other man."

    Of course, it doesn't hurt that progressives also feel like he's one of them (the community organizer from the South Side) no matter how many drone strikes he orders up or how many Wall Street apparatchiks he hires.

    In that sense -- again like Clinton -- Obama is lucky in his choice of enemies: If conservatives hate him with such deranged passion, then he must be worthy of our love and admiration.

  • James M on November 16, 2012 1:13 AM:

    Doug,

    I have to agree with keith Roberts below:

    @keith Roberts on November 15, 2012 4:31 PM:
    "...The reality is that despite their superior 2012 campaign, the Democrats were very lucky to prevail. Obama made only one significant mistake, his first debate performance, and it nearly sank him. Had he made more..."

    The fact that one poor debate performance was a such a drag on BO's campaign shows how soft much of his support was. Mr. Romney's pronouncements were so disjointed that he was practically speaking in tongues by the end of the campaign and he still managed to come pretty close. The fact that such a wooden, disconnected and dishonest candidate as Mitt Romney could prove to be such a threat shows that there are real risks for Democrats in the next presidential election.

    The GOP will do something about immigration to give themselves an opportunity to garner at least 40% of the Hispanic vote, muzzle all the "rape guys" and vastly improve their ground game in the swing states. They are definitely not going to just cede the presidency to the Democratic Party for the next 12 years and they will have unlimited funds to finance their efforts.

    It isn't "scare-mongering" to plan for the worst!

  • Keith G on November 19, 2012 9:04 AM:

    It doesn't matter who the Democrats nominate. They will win in 2016 with relative ease. The GOP is dead. Mitt Romney got fewer votes than John McCain (!). There just aren't enough white people or Republicans left in the country for the GOP to win another national election. The GOP even lost the popular vote for House elections. The only reason they held the House was due to egregious Republican gerrymandering. Once that gets wiped away after 2020, Democrats will control everything generations.

  • Gizmo on November 19, 2012 3:14 PM:

    One of things that worries me is that Obama is going to buy into the "grand bargain" and try to cut a deal with Republicans that will alienate unions and progressives, thus insuring that the Democrats get clobbered in the 2014 mid-term elections because their base is discouraged and doesn't show up at the polls.