The Coming “Struggle For the Soul of the Democratic Party”

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.