The Democrats

Whatever else happens on January 20, 2009, the date on which, barring impeachment or tragedy, George W. Bush will finally leave office, the day will mark a rather surprising historical fact. As Mark Halperin and John F. Harris point out in their introduction to The Way to Win, it will be the first time since the consecutive administrations of James Madison and James Monroe that “back-to-back presidents both served all eight years of two elected terms.” Monroe’s term ended in 1825. In every era since, death, scandal, political failure, or some other kind of disruption—notably, a broad political shift that ends one era and begins another—has intruded upon the presidential succession process, until now.

In our own time, why have things been different? We can look at the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and locate specific reasons—that Clinton had the economy humming along and thus gave voters no reason to turn him out in 1996, and that Bush responded to September 11 by putting the country on a war footing and built his reelection campaign around making voters afraid to turn him out. We can also chalk it up to the weak competition from Bob Dole and John Kerry, whose races were utterly without focus.

But I suspect there may be a more systemic reason. We entered our current era of polarization in 1992, when a well-funded conservative echo machine worked to destroy Clinton, a project that never let up until the day he left office (the Marc Rich pardon, the White House furniture “scandal”). Once conservatives gained power, they held on to it tenaciously, initiating horrifically radical turns in foreign and domestic policy from which we’ll spend years recovering. But for all this ideological volatility, our sharply polarized era has produced comparatively few lasting shifts in voter identification or allegiance. Students of this subject and television commentators tend, understandably, to highlight the changes that show up from election to election. And while there have been fluctuations in the intervening years (occasionally decisive ones, such as in 1994, when the Democratic vote dropped among almost all groups), after last fall’s election we are almost back where we were in 1992.

For example, New York Times exit poll data1 covering the period show the following: men voted 52 percent Democratic in 1992, and, after dropping into the mid-40s for a while, were back to 52 percent Democratic again in 2006. Women voted 55 percent Democratic in 1992, and 52 percent Democratic in 2006 (this vote hardly changed, except in 2002, when it went down to 50 percent); whites voted 50 percent Republican in 1992, and 52 percent Republican in 2006 (remember that H. Ross Perot ran as an independent in 1992, thus lowering white Republican votes slightly).2 One significant difference is in independent voters, among whom Democrats went from 54 percent in 1992 to 59 percent in 2006. But it’s too early to call that a trend.

Other periods of American history have brought vast realignments, crisply demarcated in single presidential elections, as when FDR took over from Herbert Hoover. Voting blocs have disappeared and emerged, forcing the parties to reshape themselves. But in our recent history, the two parties, and the kinds of Americans who tend to cluster within them, have fought to a draw—the irresistible force of secular belief in public investment set against the immovable object of faith-based laissez-faireism, each nipping at the other, but no more. In view of the results in 2002 and 2004, Karl Rove used to speak of a “rolling realignment,” predicting that today’s Republicans would accomplish over three or four elections what the 1932 Democrats and the 1896 Republicans pulled off in one. This was mostly spin, but for a time, it had the look of spin that might just become reality, and a credulous press bought into it. After last November, Rove’s dream is in ashes. Polarization has yielded a kind of electoral stasis, with both parties and the coalitions within them staying remarkably united and scratching and clawing to hold on to presidential power once they have it.

Four elections is a long time in politics for a grudge match. Something usually gives in the space of fifteen years. Even so potent a force as Reagan conservatism, it may fairly be said, lasted only ten; it took a body blow in the fall of 1990, when George H.W. Bush’s administration, in secretive budget negotiations held at Andrews Air Force Base, agreed to tax increases. This broke Bush’s “read my lips” pledge from the 1988 convention, infuriating conservatives and taking some of the sizzle out of their movement. If you ask conservatives why Bush lost to Clinton, they will point first not to Clintonian charisma or the case for generational change made by Clinton and Al Gore; they will speak chiefly of what happened at Andrews Air Force Base.3

Today, George W. Bush is weakened, the nation restless to be done with him.4 In the eyes of many voters Bush has not only discredited himself; he has to some extent discredited conservatism. For the first time in at least a decade, one senses at least the potential for large-scale shifts, for some yet-unknown X-factor to break the logjam. After last fall’s elections, there is reason to think that these shifts will redound to the Democrats’ benefit. At the same time, there is danger for Democrats in reading too much into last fall’s vote. As Chuck Schumer notes in Positively American, the party’s 2006 successes were built more around a negative message about Bush and congressional Republicans than any affirmative case the party made and “were not the sign of a lasting Democratic majority.” And while Democrats in Congress have united to pass the handful of uncontroversial planks on which they did run—a higher minimum wage, a college tuition tax credit—the fact is that the party remains split on major foreign and domestic policy questions. This split was if anything intensified by last fall’s results, particularly on the always barbed issues of globalization and trade, on which the party’s liberal wing gained momentum with the election of such economic populists as Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jim Webb of Virginia.

Finally, there are the questions of 2008: Who will be the Democrats’ nominee for president, and how will that choice affect the center of gravity? The three leading contenders—Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama—are making starkly different pitches to voters, based on quite different assumptions about what the party needs to do to break the stalemate. The next year and a half—in which we’ll see if the Democrats make a success of their congressional majority and who captures the presidential nomination—will be the most consequential eighteen months the party has faced in some time.

How could the Democrats go about building a lasting majority? Schumer has some definite ideas. Of all the national leaders the Democratic Party has produced in recent years, few are as manically driven as New York’s senior senator. He has been a politician his entire adult life—he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1974 and, returning to his old neighborhood off Kings Highway in Brooklyn, he immediately ran for, and won, a seat in New York’s state assembly. He moved up to the House of Representatives in 1980. Intellectually liberal in the way of New York City Democrats, instinctively conservative in the manner of his outer-borough bedroom community, and with an unstoppable hunger for press attention, he made a name for himself passing legislation like the Brady Bill on handguns. He toyed with running for governor but in 1997 decided instead to seek the Senate seat held by Al D’Amato. In January 1998, he was a distant third in polls in the Democratic primary behind Geraldine Ferraro and Mark Green; by the time of the September primary, he’d demolished them both. That November, he polished off D’Amato. Some months afterward, Schumer writes in his book, a still-astonished D’Amato offered a two-sentence analysis of their contest that describes both D’Amato’s world view and Schumer’s relentlessness: “I couldn’t scare you, Chuck. You’ve got the two biggest ones in the state.”

In 2005, Schumer assumed the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), thus taking on the responsibilities of finding plausible Senate candidates and raising the many millions needed to elect them. For most senators, the post is the equivalent of KP duty—a task they grudgingly accept if entreated by the leadership. Most are greatly relieved when their two-year tour of duty ends. Schumer, who calls rich people to put the touch on them with the same ardor with which he attends upstate county fairs, and who obviously did the job well, has signed up for another term.5

Schumer has not so far emerged as an intellectual leader in the party, but anyone with his record of success—New York Republicans didn’t bother to muster more than token opposition to him in 2004—is worth listening to when he talks about what his party needs to do. And in fact, Schumer’s analysis of historic political and social changes in the book’s early chapters is often trenchant. He points to three long-term trends that ate away at New Deal–style liberalism: the success of Democratic governance, which lifted millions into prosperity and “made them forget the role government had played in facilitating that success”; the homogenization of the country, which weakened Democratic appeals to groups of voters based on ethnic or regional identity6 ; and the decreasing appeal, as capitalism succeeded for more and more people who vote, of a politics based on criticism of the status quo and egalitarian economic and social policies. These changes helped grease conservatism’s path to power.

But more recent history—specifically, the vast technological changes that have transformed our economic and social life—helps explain conservatism’s current difficulties. The Internet, the globalized economy, outsourcing, and the “ability to transfer huge amounts of information quickly and at virtually no cost” have created new social conditions. The conservative insistence that the market will fairly sort out winners and losers is, he writes, inadequate to the times:

Since the early 1990s, technology has so revolutionized the landscape that the Republican answer of twenty-five years ago—strangle the government—no longer works…. As a result, as in 1932 and 1980, the political loyalty of the middle class is once again up for grabs.

Schumer’s fixation on the middle class is such that he has even invented a couple, Joe and Eileen Bailey of Massapequa (at one point he goes so far as to refer to them as “actual, albeit imaginary”), who, average in every way, serve as his lodestar. Franklin Roosevelt might have wanted to “clear it with Sidney,” in the famous phrase referring to union leader Sidney Hillman’s influence with Roosevelt. But Schumer clears everything with Joe and Eileen.7 The prescriptions he lays out in the book’s final twelve chapters—increase reading and math scores, reduce property taxes, reduce illegal immigration while increasing legal immigration, reduce cancer mortality, reduce abortions, cut children’s access to Internet pornography; all by 50 percent—are aimed obsessively at them.

Certainly, any political party seeking at least 51 percent of the votes must be attuned to the needs of the middle class, and it would be foolish to belittle the importance of the issues Schumer writes about. But sometimes leaders must lead instead of cater. He allows at one point that “I would not act purely on the basis of what Joe and Eileen wanted.” But his “50 percent solutions” give little indication of this. They include nothing about universal health care or global warming or reducing poverty or rebuilding New Orleans or indeed about any larger vision for the country. And it’s clear why: these are not safe issues since the Baileys won’t find that their self-interest is at stake in any of them. On issues like these, it is up to politicians to encourage in the Baileys of America an awareness and an empathy that they would not otherwise have. Or, to take another example, there’s Iraq. It seems likely that Schumer’s imaginary friends would, like most Americans at the time, have supported the case for war back in October 2002, when the Senate voted to authorize unconditionally the use of force against Iraq. And sure enough, Schumer voted for the war. That was catering to the Baileys, all right. But it was a disgraceful vote, which poorly served his country, his party, and, as I’m sure they’d now agree, his beloved Baileys.

I’ve dwelled on Schumer’s book because he is a very powerful man now. He’s part of the Democratic Senate leadership, and he’s helped elect six freshman senators who are all to one degree or another in his debt, with more like them on the way. He is at the center of the highest-level Democratic debates about strategy and policy, and we know that the Democrats will listen to him.

What we don’t know about the Democrats at this point is whether the party has an interest in summoning Americans to think about the world from a broader perspective than how a given issue affects them directly. If Schumer is right about the present Democratic opportunity, and I suspect he is, then the question arises whether that opportunity is best seized by deciding what average people want and giving it to them, or whether, in addition to that, leaders should aim a bit higher, addressing the larger issues that Schumer ignores. It is one thing to speak to people as consumers and as parents. But is it possible to speak to people as citizens, asking them to participate in something that has a larger national purpose?

This makes many Washington Democrats uneasy—it sounds to them like mushy idealism, and, far worse, like it might require them to get into a debate about raising taxes.8 But there are small glimmers. In The Plan, Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago congressman who was Schumer’s counterpart in the House last fall as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Bruce Reed, the Clinton White House domestic policy adviser who now edits the Democratic Leadership Council magazine Blueprint, speak of “a politics of national purpose” and write that “if your leaders aren’t challenging you to do your part, they aren’t doing theirs.” Their most tangible manifestation of this principle is their call for a “universal citizen service” program, under which people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five would have to enlist for three months of civilian service. This builds on Clinton’s Americorps volunteer program but does away with the voluntary part. One can also hear in it a strong echo of Camelot, and indeed Emanuel and Reed consciously invoke John Kennedy’s influence. But requiring young people to spend three months in a youth corps at government expense is the low-hanging fruit of civic engagement; it’s not exactly the stuff of which realignments are made.

There is much on which Democrats of all persuasions agree. Emanuel and Reed are careful to base The Plan mostly on work done by centrist policy intellectuals, but they avoid the contentious questions that separate centrists and liberals, such as the long-running debate about budget balancing versus public investment. Instead, they emphasize policies that Democrats can agree on. They call, among other things, for making broadband access universal, for cutting gasoline consumption in half, and for cracking down on corporate welfare. And Democrats agree that Bush has pursued ruinous policies, and on the need to fight back—an argument made, with numerous examples, by James Carville and Paul Begala in Take It Back (“the problem with the Democratic Party is not ideological, it’s anatomical. We lack a backbone”). Their book is self-consciously folksy; the Republicans are “so incompetent they couldn’t pour pee out of a boot if you wrote the instructions on the heel.” But buried under these apothegms is a surprisingly expert catalog of the issues of the day, with specific instructions on how to “take back” the initiative on issues of tax policy and health care and the abortion debate. For example, the authors recommend that on tax policy, Democrats answer Republican demands for more tax cuts by emphasizing fairness to the middle class and by showing that tax cuts for the rich exacerbate larger economic problems, such as our debt to China and Japan. It may seem obvious, this need to fight back. But for quite some time, most elected Democrats in Washington did not do so, because they feared Bush and Rove. Recall the decision at the party’s 2004 convention in Boston to restrict the attacks on Bush from the podium (the Republicans, at their convention, felt no such compunction).

But these developments, and the flush of general unity that has accompanied the Democrats’ victory in Congress, shouldn’t obscure the deep disagreements that persist within the party. On Capitol Hill, Democrats will likely be able to paper over many of these differences, on economic and especially social issues, which Republicans have used to such advantage in recent years. Since they control the legislative calendar, Democrats will see to it that issues that divide and terrify them, like gay marriage or flag-burning, won’t come up for votes. But they can’t make them disappear completely, and although Democrats felt relieved that in 2006 there was no replay of 2004, when anti–gay marriage initiatives in eleven states brought religious conservatives to the polls in large numbers, no one can say with confidence that controversies like this have gone away for good. (One fatefully timed decision by a liberal state supreme court legalizing gay marriage, and we’re back to 2004.)

Is there a middle ground for Democrats on contentious questions such as this? Carville and Begala see themselves as dispensing tactical advice to Democratic officials. But David Callahan struggles nobly to find something deeper in The Moral Center. A senior fellow at Demos, a public policy center based in New York, Callahan rejects the argument of Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? that working-class voters have been tricked by right-wingers into voting against their own economic interests. Instead, he asserts, “moral concerns have become bigger issues” than economic concerns for these voters; besides, he writes, “liberals vote their values all the time. No one asks, ‘What’s the matter with Cambridge?’” (It might have made a good title for his book.) He traveled around the country and talked with many people of the left and the right trying to find common ground on moral issues. As one expects, there isn’t very much. Callahan wants liberals to embrace moderates who have conflicting feelings about these questions—the Baileys, you might say—to create a new public morality that is concerned about both poverty and video game violence, both wages and rap lyrics. He wants to soften the jagged edges of the culture wars.

To which Laura Flanders says: nonsense! Flanders, who hosts a show on Air America Radio, surveys in her new book Blue Grit the opinions of white men who wrote after the 2004 election that the Democrats should sidestep cultural fights and answers that “culture war by culture war is how American history has advanced.” She recalls for example the abolition of slavery, the suffrage movement, and the more recent efforts of gays to gain equal rights. Flanders, too, traveled the country, but it seems unlikely that she and Callahan bumped into each other, because Flanders went looking for “progressive change in unexpected places” in order to show that in Montana and South Dakota and even Utah there actually are liberal activists who are trying to do good things, with very little help or notice from Washington. She writes of liberals who challenge WalMart’s employment practices, mount statewide campaigns to allow stem cell research, and organize protests against the Iraq war. She’s not persuasive in arguing that these people and others like them represent a major change that’s coming, whether the Democrats are ready for them or not. But her reporting reminds us that while it is the Washington politician’s tendency to run away from such fights, it’s necessary that there be people out there waging them, and they deserve more attention.9

Thomas Schaller, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, suggests a third trajectory, at least for presidential politics: Democrats, he argues, should just ignore the South, where such issues as gays in the military harm them most. Whistling Past Dixie makes a strong historical and numerical case that the Democrats can win presidential elections without depending on Southern votes and gratifying Southern mores—trying to appease Southern strictures on personal behavior, he argues, costs them support elsewhere. Schaller’s thesis has made him a few enemies among Southern Democratic strategists, such as David “Mudcat” Saunders, the Virginia political consultant who enjoyed a moment of fame a year or two ago as the oracle who would help return the South to the Democratic column. In fact, Democrats made some gains in the region in 2006, notably Webb’s win over George Allen and the victory of Mike Beebe, the Democratic candidate for governor in Arkansas. But the large Democratic deficit in the region remains—for example, the eleven states of the Confederacy are represented by sixteen Republican senators and six Democrats. In those states’ delegations in the House, Republicans hold an 81–50 advantage. Pouring resources into lessening those imbalances, especially while the party is making greater gains in the Mountain West, hardly seems worth the trouble.

In Congress, any far-reaching legislation will face opposition from Senate Republicans, who still have more than enough votes to stop measures from getting to the floor, let alone being passed and sent to the White House. On domestic policy, the best the Democrats can do is hold hearings that will expose the Republican record, approve legislation, at least in committees, and show the public what they’d like to do if they had full power.

By far the most important action the Democrats can take this year is on Iraq. By mid-February, the Senate was at an impasse over a series of non-binding resolutions that condemn in different degrees the President’s plan for a surge; but House Democrats were preparing to pass their own resolution. Bush has just sent Congress his proposed defense budget for 2008, a $650 billion bonanza for the defense sector of the economy, of which about $150 billion is earmarked for Iraq and Afghanistan. With public opinion running strongly against the war, the Democrats will be on very safe territory here if they vote to limit military funding for an expansion of the war, whether Bush successfully vetoes legislation or not. Neoconservative critics will bray that the Democrats are betraying the troops and try to argue that “they have painted themselves into a number of corners,”10 but such views are falling on increasingly deaf ears, even in Washington. The Democrats can’t be seen to be causing harm to the troops in Iraq. But short of that, they have plenty of maneuvering room. Finally, unequivocally, and thankfully, most Americans have placed the blame for this fiasco where it belongs.

It will, instead, be up to the presidential candidates to try to sort Iraq out. And they are already doing so. John Edwards calls for an immediate drawdown of 40,000 troops (out of about 140,000). Barack Obama wants a phased redeployment to begin in April, and full withdrawal by March 2008. Hillary Clinton has refused to set a timetable, but she has proposed that a limit be placed on the number of troops in Iraq.11 Edwards, as if passing from Inferno into Purgatorio, has renounced the sin of his original vote for the war in 2002. Obama has reminded voters that, while merely a state senator in 2002, he nevertheless spoke forcefully (and, as it turns out, presciently) against the war.12 Clinton has not disavowed her vote but has tap-danced on the narrow stage where antiwar primary voters meet the more hawkish foreign policy establishment, telling a Democratic National Committee audience on February 2 that if she’d been president, she would not have started the war, and that if it’s not over by 2009 and she is president, she will end it.

These differences among the three leading Democratic presidential candidates—Edwards the most liberal, Obama in the middle, Clinton the most cautious—reflect their candidacies more broadly. Which one wins the nomination will do more, far more than anything Congress does, to suggest how the party will try to create the “lasting Democratic majority” of which Schumer spoke. Clinton will hew closest to Schumer’s prescriptions, for example trying to win over parents with talk about the need to reduce the violence of video games, a subject she has frequently discussed as a senator. Halperin and Harris, in The Way to Win, devote fully sixty pages to discussing Clinton’s career and speculating how she will run for president. Harris is the editor of the new Web/ print publication The Politico, and Halperin is the creator of “The Note,”’s influential daily round-up of political coverage. Halperin in particular is a zealous guardian of the conventional wisdom in Washington, and so it’s no surprise that the authors speculate darkly that Clinton would probably gravitate more toward “Bush politics” than “Clinton politics” (meaning Bill)—drawing stark ideological distinctions between herself and her opponents in order to vanquish them. But the early evidence suggests that this forecast is completely incorrect and that Clinton will stick to the safe middle ground, advocating smaller-scale initiatives on questions such as health care so as to inoculate herself against the charge of being “liberal.”

Instead, it is Edwards who seems intent on making stark distinctions. His will be the most avowedly liberal campaign run by a candidate with a serious chance at the nomination in many years. He clearly believes that a lasting majority can be formed by appealing to the nation’s conscience about the need for universal health care and the disgrace of poverty, and he is more forthright about their costs than the other major candidates, saying that he will raise taxes on incomes over $200,000 to finance his health care plan. If he becomes president, Schumer, Clinton, and the Democratic Leadership Council will have to reconsider much of their program.

Obama has announced few clear proposals but he evidently believes it possible to arrive at a Democratic majority not by blurring or accentuating distinctions between different political tendencies but through somehow rendering them anachronistic. The language of civic engagement and asking citizens to be a part of something larger than themselves comes naturally to him. It’s my sense that this, more than Clinton’s centrism or Edwards’s populism (or Schumer’s agenda for the Baileys), is the appropriate language for the times. But Obama has yet to say, in any clearly explained way, just what it is that he will ask citizens to engage themselves in. In his February 10 announcement speech, he suggested that energy independence, universal health care, and fighting terrorism differently would be priorities. Edwards and Clinton are both well ahead of him when it comes to specifics.

The current moment is without precedent. Until Bush, most Americans had not seen modern conservatism fail them and the country so completely. It is, for now, only a moment. But it’s the kind of moment on which realignments are built. It might turn out that Karl Rove has broken the national stalemate after all.

February 14, 2007

  1. 1

    Data are available at My thanks to Ruy Teixeira, a Century Foundation and Center for American Progress fellow and respected exit poll analyst, for helping me locate these and other numbers.

  2. 2

    There are some exceptions. In 1992, Clinton persuaded 15 percent of Republicans to vote for him. But by 1996, only 8 percent of Republicans voted Democratic—the same percentage as in 2006.

  3. 3

    And sometimes with humor. “Munich, you can kind of make a case for Munich,” the conservative activist Grover Norquist once told me jokingly. “But Andrews Air Force Base…never!”

  4. 4

    One of the most remarkable poll results I’ve ever seen: in late January, after the State of the Union address, CNN asked respondents various questions about Bush, and 58 percent said they “wish the Bush presidency was simply over.” See

  5. 5

    Incidentally, the map of Senate elections taking place in 2008 looks potentially quite favorable to Democrats. Republicans must defend twenty-one seats, and Democrats just twelve.

  6. 6

    The exception here, as Schumer notes, is African-Americans, who because of racism and legal barriers have maintained a stronger group identity than the Irish or Italians.

  7. 7

    Political reporters have heard Schumer speak of Joe and Eileen for a few years now. In Positively American, he fills out the family picture. Their three children are named Megan, Abby, and Pete. In the last two years, Pete has “grown fatter,” which has the Baileys fretting about child obesity.

  8. 8

    For a fascinating analysis of the changing politics of tax cuts, positing that the era of the tax revolt (which started in the late 1970s) is over, see “Read My Lips: Raise Taxes,” by Mark Schmitt, The Washington Monthly, January/ February 2007.

  9. 9

    I should note that I am quoted once in the book, somewhere between neutrally and unfavorably.

  10. 10

    The phrase belongs to Noemie Emery, from “Irresolution,” The Weekly Standard, February 12, 2007.

  11. 11

    A good summation of the leading candidates’ positions is found in Tom Hamburger and Janet Hook, “Iraq Plan Divides Democratic Hopefuls,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2007.

  12. 12

    In a speech he delivered on October 26, 2002, he said in part: “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.” The entire speech is at’s_Iraq_Speech.