Bark vs. Bite

BARK vs. BITE….Dan Drezner, commenting on the fact that the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates are passing up the centrist DLC’s summer meeting in favor of speaking at YearlyKos, says:

The fact that YearlyKos matters more than the DLC seems like pretty damning and uncomplicated evidence to me of where the party has traveled over the last four years.

Actually, I think it is a little more complicated than the simple “left vs. centrist” spin that most people have put on this. In substantive terms, after all, the three main Democratic candidates this year are only slightly to the left of DLC big dog Bill Clinton himself.

Rather, it seems like this is mostly about optics. In the 90s, Democrats were still fighting the countercultural backlash of the 70s and needed ways to demonstrate their willingness to abandon old orthodoxies. Hanging with the DLC was a terrific way of signalling to both the press and the public that the party had reinvented itself.

But that reinvention is a done deal. As far as the optics are concerned, the DLC isn’t really necessary anymore. YearlyKos is.

But it’s not because the average Kossack is to the left of the average DLCer. The real difference is that the average Kossack is obsessed with Democrats having the stones to stand up to the modern Republican machine. Presidential candidates get trashed in the Kos diaries not so much when they take disfavored policy positions (though of course that happens too), but when they’re viewed as backing down from a fight. The median Kossack may indeed be to the left of the median Democrat — it would be shocking if an activist group weren’t — but mainly they just want their candidates to show some backbone.

I suppose in some sense this is a distinction without a difference. A median Democrat who stands up to the GOP and refuses to budge is, willy nilly, going to end up to the left of a median Democrat who looks for bipartisan compromise. But let’s face it: if YearlyKos were genuinely more substantively powerful than the DLC, you’d see the big three candidates taking public positions considerably to the left of the party’s positions ten years ago. If that’s the case, though, I’ve missed it. No one’s talking about rolling back welfare reform. No one’s proposed a healthcare initiative even half as comprehensive as the 1994 Clinton plan. All three candidates continue to claim they’re personally opposed to gay marriage. Their rhetoric on guns and abortion is much more muted than in the past. They mostly agree that some of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire, but not much more. They want to get out of Iraq, but that’s a thoroughly mainstream position, and none of them are willing to commit to a complete withdrawal in any case.

So has the Democratic Party moved to the left? Probably a bit. There are more misgivings about trade policy; more concern over rising income inequality; and, for obvious reasons, more skepticism about foreign military interventions. In policy terms, though, the response to all of these things has been pretty muted. Speechmaking at YearlyKos vs. the DLC is far more about bark than bite.