More Than a Hand Slapped Away

In the extensive discussion of the Mann-Ornstein op-ed calling out Republicans as “the problem” in causing polarization and gridlock, there’s been some griping about their characterization of Democrats moving slightly to the left while GOPers have moved violently to the right. And it’s not just an academic point: many progressives think the “real” problem isn’t asymmetrical polarization but the feckless and fruitless pursuit of compromise by Democrats even as Republicans pull the entire political system ever further to the right.

Here’s Kevin Drum from a post late yesterday:

[T]he truth is that both sides haven’t moved away from the center. Only Republicans have, and Democrats have spent the past 20 years chasing them in hopes that eventually they could reach some kind of reconciliation. But it never did any good. The Democratic move rightward was interpreted not as a bid for compromise somewhere in the middle, but as a victory for a resurgent conservative movement that merely inspired them to move the goalposts even further out.

Is it any wonder that so many Democrats are no longer in any mood to appease the right? It hasn’t exactly been a winning strategy for liberal ambitions, has it?

The planted axiom in this familiar argument is that Democrats have “moved right” (a characterization that Kevin notes does not apply to every issue, viz. gay rights, cap-and-trade, and “maybe a couple of other arguable cases”) strictly in order to accomodate or seek compromise with conservatives. That’s not necessarily the case, at least for the party as a whole.

On some issues, notably welfare reform, Democrats “moved right,” if that’s what you want to call it, for a combination of reasons that initially had little to do with cutting deals with Republicans: the existing system wasn’t working very well to accomplish its own stated goals, and was massively unpopular with voters of every persuasion. Yes, Bill Clinton wound up compromising with Republicans on actual welfare reform legislation in 1996 (after vetoing two significantly more draconian bills), but was pursuing his own version of welfare reform before Republicans gained the power to force him to the table.

On health care, it’s not accurate to say that Barack Obama embraced the framework for what became the Affordable Care Act strictly because Republicans had supported something similar. A private-sector-based “managed competition” proposal was in the mix earlier, back during the ClintonCare debate, and was supported by a lot of fairly conventional Democrats, such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In the 2004 and 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, every candidate other than Dennis Kucinich proposed a “hybrid” system as well, and not because they were anticipating negotiations with congressional Republicans. A single-payer system, while popular among many liberal Democrats, was never some party-wide policy preference that was later “abandoned” by Clinton or Obama, and the polling on it never showed it to be a world-beater, either. Maybe these two Democratic presidents should have pursued it anyway, but again, it’s not so clear that a craving for Republican approval was the key, much less the only, factor.

Why does this question even matter? That’s simple enough: now that everyone agrees “bipartisan compromise” on most vital issues has been made simply impossible by the devolution of the GOP into a rigid ideological cult, Democrats still have to decide what policies to propose, and still must, to the limited extent possible, try to govern. And there’s still not an automatic, default-drive “true progressive” position on many national priorities other than resistance to conservative assaults on the New Deal, the Great Society, corporate regulation, environmental protection, civil rights, and peaceful international cooperation.

Once the specter of feckless bipartisanship is banished, there will remain internal disagreements among progressives, so we might as well get used to it and stop pretending it’s a simple choice between courage and cowardice.

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.