Posted: August 13, 2014
At noon on January 20, 2015, the presidency of Barack Obama will be three-quarters over. According to less technical but more fundamental political measures, however, it’s basically already over. Since the bungled debut of the Obamacare website in 2013 the president’s disapproval rating in public opinion polls has consistently exceeded 50%, and often been more than ten percentage points greater than his approval rating. Insider press accounts portray a commander-in-chief increasingly bored and frustrated with the job. Meanwhile, prognosticators and pollsters say the GOP is likely to expand—and almost certain not to lose—its majority in the House of Representatives in the 2014 midterm elections, and has a no-worse-than-even chance of taking control of the Senate. The candidate elected six years ago on a promise of hope and change, then, has no further hope to make any big changes Congress must approve, or can impede.
With no more transformations in the offing, the incumbent who aspired to transform his country and the world will spend the next 28 months submitting to the fate of every term-limited president: caretaker and lame duck. It’s too soon to assess many facets of Obama’s presidency, but not all. Since politics never takes a sabbatical, it’s worth examining how the Democratic Party has been changed by, or at least during, the presidency of the man who came from nowhere to become its leader in 2008. The subject resists clarification because of uncertainty about how—and how ardently—Obama wanted to change his party, as well as about what Democrats swept up in Obamamania thought they were getting in the junior senator from Illinois.
While waiting for future historians to bring the benefits of archives and perspective to bear on the topic, we can fashion a first draft by employing historical perspectives available today. After Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 George F. Will said that Barry Goldwater had, in fact, emerged a victorious presidential candidate…it was just that 16 years were needed to count all the ballots. By the same token, many liberals felt Barack Obama’s election meant that George McGovern, too, had finally been vindicated, 36 years after his landslide defeat. “The image of Barack Hussein Obama speaking to America from his stage in Grant Park that night in November 2008 as president-elect was, for liberals, one of the most staggering images we’ve ever seen,” journalist Michael Tomasky wrote in 2010. “[M]any millions of us felt—almost invincible in a way; finally justified in our beleaguered beliefs, after so many years of despondency and rage.”
Indeed, Obama made clear in a famous January 2008 interview that the stars were aligning for him to become the Democrats’ Reagan:
I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it…
I think we are in one of those times right now, where people feel like things as they are going aren’t working, that we’re bogged down in the same arguments that we’ve been having and they’re not useful. And the Republican approach I think has played itself out.
No one today thinks Obama has fulfilled that destiny. According to a recent essay by Canadian politician and author Chrystia Freeland, “what was really audacious about all the hope Obama once represented” was the belief that a counterrevolution to match and nullify the Reagan/Thatcher revolution was imminent, and he would be its “architect and champion.” Clearly, however, “Obama hasn’t delivered on that gear-shifting promise,” because, we now know, “He’s no liberal Reagan.” Obama himself has abandoned audacious hopes about changed trajectories and fundamentally different paths. Earlier this year he told an interviewer, “[A]t the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
The spectrum of liberals’ explanations for why the Obama presidency has amounted to so much less than at first seemed possible stretches from bitter, even venomous, indictments of Obama himself to the resigned judgment that he has done about as well as could reasonably be expected, given the circumstances and, above all, political opposition he has faced. Within the subset of those who blame Obama for not putting America on a fundamentally different path there is, in turn, another argument: Did Obama really want to move America several big steps to the left, just like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but fell far short because of his own flaws and blunders? Or was he, despite the millennial rhetoric, a sheep in wolf’s clothing all along, whose deepest hopes were never especially audacious or transformative?
The latter debate is complicated because the two explanations are not either-or alternatives, or even more-or-less ones. The package deal presented by Obama frustrates efforts to make tidy distinctions between the propositions that his weak capacities undermine the liberal project and that his weak commitments betray it. David Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale University writing in the Nation this year, revisited the unbearable slightness of Barack, which astounded and enraged first Hillary Clinton then John McCain during the epic ascent of 2008:
The law journal editor without a published article, the lawyer without a well-known case to his credit, the law professor whose learning was agreeably presented without a distinctive sense of his position on the large issues, the state senator with a minimal record of yes or no votes, and the U.S. senator who between 2005 and 2008 refrained from committing himself as the author of a single piece of significant legislation: this was the candidate who became president in January 2009.
From the premise that “temperament may matter far more in politics than the promulgation of sound opinions,” Bromwich concludes that Obama’s personal and political failings are of one piece. “[T]he truth,” he writes more in anger than in sorrow, “is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.” Obama’s flexibility of conviction is inseparable from his Zelig-like social adaptability:
More than most people, Obama has been a creature of his successive environments. He talked like Hyde Park when in Hyde Park. He talks like Citigroup when at the table with Citigroup. And in either milieu, he likes the company well enough and enjoys blending in.
Thomas Frank, best known as the author of What’s The Matter With Kansas? (2004), is even more caustic. The Obama years, he predicted this summer, will be remembered as “a time when America should have changed but didn’t.” Why didn’t it? Because, according to either Frank or his headline writer at Salon, “An ineffective and gutless presidency’s legacy is failure.” And what would an effective and fearless presidency’s legacy have been? Frank’s wish list equals Obama’s failure list:
Why…did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?
Frank omits failures that others on the Left deplore: the Obama Administration’s secretiveness; its expansion of the surveillance state; the continued operation of Guantanamo; the ongoing military operations in Afghanistan; the wider use and limitless scope of drone attacks; the unreversed, unstopped, unslowed death spiral of the labor movement; the absence of new gun control legislation; and climate change, “the greatest threat of the age,” according to Bromwich, in response to which “Obama taught America dimly, worked part-time at half-measures, was silent for years at a stretch and never tried to lead.”
What infuriates Obama’s leftist critics more than anything else is that he has, in their view, responded to his conservative opponents, newly radicalized by the Tea Party, with never-reciprocated civility and restraint. Here again, it is hard to untangle the president’s temperament and his opinions. Reviewing The Audacity of Hope in 2006, before it was clear if or when the recently elected Senator Obama would seek the presidency, Tomasky noted that the author’s characteristic way of engaging any policy controversy was to say, “[H]ere’s what the right believes about subject X, and here’s what the left believes; and while I basically side with the left, I think the right has a point or two that we should consider, and the left can sometimes get a little carried away.” There are two ways to regard this disposition, Tomasky wrote. “The first is to be disdainful. We are in an age, many liberals argue, that calls for political warfare. These are not the times to be acknowledging that conservatives may have a point or to pick quarrels with interest groups that, whatever their faults, are fighting the good fight.” The second is to conclude that Obama “really is not a political warrior by temperament. He is not even, as the word is commonly understood, a liberal,” in the sense that he is uncomfortable with and skeptical about the “more aggressive rights-based liberalism” that has risen since the 1960s, “which sometimes places particular claims for social justice ahead of a larger universal good.”
When conservatives worried the Reagan Administration wasn’t moving as far or fast to the right as it ought to they often said, “Let Reagan be Reagan.” Since 2009 none of his liberal critics has ever said, “Let Obama be Obama.” The difference is that conservatives 30 years ago were sure they had a good idea who Reagan really was: as the most prominent conservative politician in America for many years before being elected president, he had explained himself clearly and repeatedly on all manner of public questions. Barack Obama, by contrast, was an obscure state senator less than three years before he began his presidential campaign, during which he offered tantalizing clues—but nothing approaching definitive proof—about his deepest convictions. William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who worked in the Clinton White House, said in 2009 that Obama’s presidential campaign was noteworthy for its “missing middle”:
Up here there was the riveting rhetoric, and down here a series of reasonably well-crafted, intelligent, and serious policy prescriptions. What was missing in the middle was the connective tissue that might be called the theory of the case.
Given how the Obama elected in 2008 allowed and even encouraged various, often contradictory interpretations of his true goals and beliefs, it is not surprising that many people saw what they wanted to see, and set themselves up to be disappointed. Some who supplied their own theory of the case—Obama was the liberal Galahad whose presidency would eradicate every trace of Reagan’s—are now outraged. Their laments boil down to, “Let Obama be Kucinich.”
But every elaboration of the critics’ counterfactual accounts of how the last six years would have been completely different if Obama were Kucinich, or if Dennis Kucinich were president, ends up sounding like magical realism instead of political analysis. The absence of a convincing account of how the road not taken ought to have been navigated supports the position of those Democrats who absolve President Obama for most of what has gone wrong and what else hasn’t happened at all. For example, Frank’s rhetorical questions condemn Obama for not proposing a proper (i.e., far bigger) economic stimulus program, or a proper (i.e., far more statist) health care program in 2009, failures that squandered a historic opportunity, according to Frank, to “put the right out of business once and for all.” But, the president’s defenders said then and have maintained ever since, bills more ambitious than the legislation Obama ultimately signed were never going to be enacted. “I’m sure there are a lot of people sitting in the shade at the Aspen Institute…who will tell you what the ideal plan is. Great, fascinating. You have the art of the possible measured against the ideal,” Rahm Emanuel—then White House chief of staff, now mayor of Chicago—said about health care reform in 2009. “The goal isn’t to see whether I can pass this through the executive board of the Brookings Institution. I’m passing it through the United States Congress with people who represent constituents.”
And the 111th Congress posed severe problems for Obama. After the 1932 election, Franklin Roosevelt was submitting New Deal legislation to a Congress where 73% of the representatives and 61% of the senators were Democrats. (After Democratic gains in the elections of ’34 and ’36 those proportions rose to 80% and 81%, respectively.) After the 1964 elections, Lyndon Johnson sent his Great Society proposals to a Congress where Democrats accounted for 68% of the membership in each chamber.
That Congress passed so much of what FDR and LBJ wanted is, then, no mystery. After 2008, by contrast, there were 257 Democratic members of the House, 59% of the total and exactly 40 more than Speaker Nancy Pelosi could afford to lose on any vote if the Republican minority stayed united, which it almost always did. Many of the votes she needed to reach a bare majority of 218 had to come from Democrats representing red and purple districts: when Emanuel served in the House from 2002 to 2008 he played a central role in recruiting, funding, and electing candidates from such districts, an accomplishment crucial to ending the majority Republicans enjoyed from 1994 to 2006. As the loss of that Democratic House majority in 2010 showed, however, it was always going to be very difficult, at best, to keep the majority both secure, in terms of electoral politics, and productive, in terms of liberal legislation. There is every reason to think if Democrats had tried to enact more or bigger programs in 2009 they would have either lost the floor votes, or surrendered even more seats in the 2010 midterm elections on account of enacting such laws.
Things were even dicier in the Senate. For seven months—the time between Democrat Al Franken being sworn in after a disputed election in Minnesota, and Republican Scott Brown being sworn in after a special election in Massachusetts—Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate, the exact minimum required to pass bills (or approve nominations) against a Republican filibuster. Of that number, 13 Democratic senators represented states that John McCain had carried against Obama in 2008, making it difficult for those politicians to cast the tough votes an epochal agenda would have required. Legislating was very hard for the president when there were fewer than 60 Democrats in the Senate, and not that much easier when there weren’t, since each of the 60 had the leverage to demand concessions in exchange for supporting the cloture vote needed to thwart any filibuster.
Well, then, why didn’t President Obama, fresh from a smashing victory and rapturous crowds, “go over the heads of Congress,” so the outraged people would insist on every policy item on the Kucinich agenda? Confronted by that uprising, risk-averse legislators would have voted in 2009 as boldly as their predecessors had in 1933 and 1965. In 2008, Bromwich argues, “there had been a swell of popular opinion and a convergence of smaller movements around a cause. That cause was the candidacy of Barack Obama.” Upon winning, however, he failed to transform the movement from a worshipful cult of personality into a political force demanding measures like a massive jobs program or aggressive climate change policies.
This scenario, too, is unconvincing. If all the elements for a populist uprising of the Left had been in place upon Obama’s election, it should have asserted itself with or without his help. Instead, as Tomasky wrote in 2010, “We’ve experienced the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, and the only mass movement to emerge from that reality is a right-wing populist one,” the Tea Party. The “Howell Raines Fallacy,” named for the sermonizing of the New York Times editorial page under its former boss, is a siren constantly luring writers and activists to think they’re observing when they’re merely wishing. The fallacy collapses the distinction between asserting: 1) public policy X is noble and urgently needed; and 2) the American people in their righteous might demand the prompt enactment and implementation of policy X, and will wreak a terrible vengeance on any politician who impedes, delays, or diminishes it. Such delusions, writes Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, caused Thomas Frank and other Obama accusers to see vividly something that was never there:
Like it or not, America was not poised for a huge liberal wave in 2008. It just wasn’t. It was poised for a fairly routine cycle of throwing out the old bums and electing new bums, who would, as usual, be given a very short and very limited honeymoon. Democrats actually accomplished a fair amount during that honeymoon, but no, they didn’t turn America into a lefty paradise. That was never in the cards.
Though Democrats are divided on how big an opportunity was knocking for them in 2009, and on how much Barack Obama did to take advantage of it, they are nearly united in the belief that any good works left undone since then amount to temporary setbacks, not a big chance irretrievably lost. Democrats’ confident, even smug, assessment of their political future is based on an argument first and most famously laid out by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002). By the middle of this century, the Census Bureau predicts, fewer than half of all Americans will be non-Hispanic whites. And as every election cycle brings closer the advent of a “majority minority” nation, Democrats will go from strength to strength. National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein, one of many commentators to embrace and apply Judis and Teixeira’s thesis, argued in the Atlantic that Obama’s victory against Mitt Romney in 2012 demonstrated that the Democrats’ growing “Coalition of Transformation” will inexorably marginalize the Republicans’ dwindling “Coalition of Restoration.” As the balance of power tilts ever more steeply against the GOP, future Democratic presidents, of which there will be many, are certain to accomplish all the big reforms that eluded Obama, in ways that future Republican presidents, of which there will be few, can never undo.
This emerging Democratic majority, Judis and Teixeira argue, is “George McGovern’s revenge.” McGovern received 37.5% of the popular vote in 1972, the third-worst performance of any major political party presidential nominee since Andrew Jackson was in the White House, leaving aside those elections where a third-party challenger exceeded 16.6% of the vote, Robert La Follette’s total as the Progressive nominee in 1924. (Democrat James Cox took 34.2% of the votes in 1920, and Republican Alf Landon got 36.5% in 1936.) As bad as his overall results were, McGovern did disproportionately well among affluent professionals, women with jobs outside the home, and non-white voters. All three groups have grown steadily as proportions of the electorate over the past 42 years, all are expected to continue to do so for years to come, and Democrats have remained popular among these voters. To win steadily larger percentages of the vote from segments of the electorate that are themselves growing steadily larger is close to an unbeatable electoral formula.
For 21st-century Democrats to turn the losing coalition of 1972 into a winning coalition constitutes only the political half of McGovern’s revenge. Politicians, activists, and writers, all energized by demographic triumphalism, are busy developing and implementing the policy half, the updated McGovernite agenda that will, finally, turn America into a lefty paradise. The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson recently hailed the growing roster of American cities—Boston, Minneapolis, New York, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, Seattle, “and many more”—now serving as laboratories of social democracy. “The mayoral and council class of 2013 is one of the most progressive cohorts of elected officials in recent American history.” Many of the changes Obama couldn’t or wouldn’t make at the national level are beyond the scope of municipal government. But the agenda Meyerson’s heroes are pursuing strongly indicates where the Democratic party is heading: a higher minimum wage (some cities are considering $15 an hour); fostering “inner-city hiring on major projects and…unionization in hotels, stores, and trucking”; universal pre-kindergarten education and other programs for very young children; more mass transit and fewer cars, to achieve more density and less sprawl; and “forbidding their police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities in the deportation of undocumented immigrants.” Not only does all this amount to an effort to enact “at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels.” More importantly, the urban progressives “may be charting a new course for American liberalism.”
The undisputed leader of these progressives is Bill de Blasio, the mayor New York elected in 2013. His prominence derives not only from governing America’s most populous city, but from winning the job in a campaign as dramatic as Barack Obama’s in 2008. De Blasio was far behind more prominent Democratic candidates for most of 2013, barely registering single-digits in the opinion polls. In the summer, however, his “Tale of Two Cities” campaign theme—the “few doing very well, while so many slip further behind…is the defining challenge of our time”—caught on, and he won the Democratic primary in September with 40% of the vote, en route to getting 72% in November’s general election.
The equally famous new McGovernite, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, gives Democrats hope that a populist agenda will be confined only temporarily to municipal governance, and will soon dominate national policy-making. After defeating incumbent Scott Brown in 2012, she now holds the Senate seat occupied for 47 years by Edward Kennedy. A Harvard law professor, specializing in the law of bankruptcy, Warren had never sought elective office before 2012. She was motivated to do so after Senate Republicans thwarted her hopes of becoming the first chairman of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new regulatory body created by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, and housed in the Federal Reserve System—one that came into existence in large part because of her advocacy for it.
Warren’s lack of political experience did not hurt her campaign. She “possesses a knack for earthy articulation of the liberal-populist worldview matched by no one else in American public life today,” Tomasky wrote earlier this year, which has made her a rock star among “liberals who’ve been desperate for years to hear a prominent Democrat talk the way she does.” This fame has led many Democrats to hope Warren will run for president in 2016, whether or not Hillary Clinton chooses to try again for the nomination she lost to Barack Obama in 2008.
A primary contest between Warren and Clinton is unlikely—the former has stated repeatedly and firmly, but not quite categorically, that she doesn’t intend to seek the presidency. But even the theoretical possibility of a Warren candidacy highlights the immediate challenge before the new McGovernites: winning the battle for primacy within the Democratic Party. Among the ways in which Warren’s fans are McGovernites is that they hope she will replicate George McGovern’s victory in the 1972 nomination contest against more famous, less leftist candidates, including Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, and Edmund Muskie. The years of liberals’ despondency and rage described by Tomasky have a great deal to do with bitterness over the fact that McGovern’s intra-party win was 42 years ago and an isolated event. Ted Kennedy failed to dislodge Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Howard Dean, representing “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” as he put it, lost the 2004 nomination to John Kerry. The Democrats most disappointed in President Obama thought his nomination meant the Democratic wing had finally come out on top, and in an election year highly favorable for Democrats.
Populists and Progressives
Those who dream of President Elizabeth Warren’s inauguration in 2017 believe it would signal the consummation of the effort begun in 1971 for an unapologetic, unqualified Democrat to win first the party, and then the country, since liberal despondency and rage connects intra-party defeats with national ones. The Democrats’ left wing in the late 1960s and early ’70s—the “New Politics” movement—was meant to build a profoundly different America. The McGovern nomination was not supposed to be a high-water mark or doomed Romantic quest. In the same way, the Reagan Revolution was never supposed to occur, and Republicans were never supposed to gain parity with Democrats in congressional races. Once these calamities did happen, the mission of the Democratic Party, as understood by its Democratic wing, was to make every trace of them unhappen, not to accommodate the newly assertive conservatives or concede they had perspectives liberals would do well to consider.
The “Deaniacs” of 2004 were motivated primarily by anger at the war in Iraq, and at the Democrats who had voted to authorize it, such as Kerry. They transferred their antipathies to Clinton in 2008, and were receptive to Obama as an alternative because he had spoken out against the Iraq war while she voted for it. Since the financial crisis of 2008, however, the primary concern of the party’s Democratic wing has shifted from foreign affairs to domestic policy, and especially to economic populism. Journalist Matt Bai makes a useful distinction—one that will matter a great deal to the coming fight for the Democratic soul—between populism and progressivism. He defines the former as the conviction “that the main barrier to broad prosperity are the wealthy citizens who refuse to share. The only fair and effective way to mitigate the effects of inequality…is to take large sums of capital away from those who hoard it and redistribute it to those less fortunate.” The populist does regard the redistribution of wealth as a means to the end of helping the poor, but is primarily attracted to it as an end in itself. A progressive, by contrast, “believes that an activist government can address all manner of social problems, but he doesn’t buy the proposition that confiscating more wealth is the central way to right wrongs.”
This theoretical debate played out in a practical way in New York this year. One of de Blasio’s campaign promises was to raise the city income tax on New Yorkers making more than $500,000, then use the proceeds to expand pre-K education programs. Under New York law, however, legislation for the city tax increase had to be approved by the state legislature and signed by the governor, Andrew Cuomo. A Democrat elected in 2010, Cuomo was decidedly cool to the idea. Immediately upon taking office he made clear how little populism motivated him. “I am a progressive Democrat who’s broke,” Cuomo said in 2011. “The old way of solving the problem was continuing to raise taxes on people, and we just can’t do that anymore.” The final disposition of the issue—yes to the pre-K expansion, funded by money from the state budget, but no to the NYC income tax surcharge—was a victory for Cuomo over de Blasio, and a victory for progressivism over populism. That de Blasio tried, and failed, to get the tax anyway, shows that for him, and populists in general, raising taxes on the rich is “as much about sticking it to the Monopoly monocle guy,” in Bai’s words, as it is about whatever worthy purposes the additional revenues are supposed to fund.
The Warren/de Blasio Democrats are going to have to win such fights, such arguments, if they hope to transform the party into their church militant. That challenge may prove daunting. Populist Democrats are a rising force in intra-party politics in deeply blue jurisdictions like Massachusetts, where Obama won 61% of the popular vote in 2012, and New York City (78%). Evidence that purple and red jurisdictions are more amenable than formerly to leftist candidates and themes is far more elusive. Unlike de Blasio, Governor Cuomo answers to Empire State voters outside the five boroughs, an electorate that Obama carried in 2012 by a margin of 54-to-45%, only a bit better than he did nationwide. Not coincidentally, Cuomo has taken positions on issues such as taxes, charter schools, and campaign finance reform markedly less liberal than de Blasio’s, angering leftist Democrats.
“In some ways,” writes John Cassidy of the New Yorker, Andrew Cuomo “is a throwback to the [Democratic Leadership Council] of the Clinton era, whose goal was to make the Party more palatable to tax payers and business interests.” The observation was not a compliment. The DLC was created in 1985, after Reagan’s landslide victory over Walter Mondale. In his The New Democrats and the Return to Power (2013), DLC founder Al From recounts that its mission was to “develop an agenda strengthening the Democratic Party and making it competitive again in national elections.” The group’s most prominent politician, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, gave a speech in his capacity as DLC chairman to its 1991 meeting, calling on Democrats to fashion a message “that goes beyond the stale orthodoxies of left and right.” Coming from a politician whose first big job in politics was working as a state coordinator for the 1972 McGovern campaign, this was a bracing example of what Americans would later come to know as “triangulation.” Those McGovernites who had not qualified their politics in the years after his defeat believed their positions were righteous and vibrant, not stale, and resented the imputed symmetry between their views and Reagan Republicans’. Jesse Jackson dismissed the group as “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”
Return to Power is a Mission Accomplished book about the DLC, which disbanded in 2011. Thorough in its narration of the organization’s history, the book disregards the fact that all the energy among Democrats now belongs to followers of Warren and de Blasio, who revile the DLC’s accommodations rather than celebrate its achievements. “In the Democratic Party there is a battle between the economic populist wing that fights for the little guy against the corporate wing,” says the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, “and [Warren] represents the populist wing.”
There was always less than met the eye in the fight between the DLC and anti-DLC Democrats, however. In his 1991 speech Clinton said, “Too many of the people who used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we’re talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interest abroad, to put their values in our social policy at home or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline. We’ve got to turn these perceptions around, or we can’t continue as a national party.” Like a million things Clinton has uttered in the subsequent 23 years, this formulation was expertly crafted to assure people who disagreed with one another that Bill Clinton agreed with each and all of them. Was the middle-class’s mistrust of the Democrats justified or baseless? Were Democrats supposed to alter middle-class perceptions of the party by changing the realities people saw when they looked at it, or by convincing voters their distrust resulted from unfortunate misunderstandings? Clinton’s listeners could all nod their heads in the belief that wherever they were on the spectrum of imperative Democratic changes—cosmetic to structural—Clinton was right there, too. In short, DLC Democrats could believe that the only thing, really, wrong with how Democrats had conducted and explained themselves since the mid-’60s was that they had antagonized voters. Since Democrats now are competitive in national elections, and confidently expect to dominate them in the future, the DLC policy agenda can be safely set aside according to the rationale for creating DLC in the first place.
For all that, however, Democrats are still well advised to order their inaugural ball tickets one election at a time rather than splurge on the subscription series. Among the clouds on the horizon, two are especially threatening. First, the party that stands for conferring ever more responsibilities and resources on government is unlikely to flourish in an age when Americans are increasingly skeptical about government’s competence and integrity. In 1958, 73% of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington most of the time or just about always. In 2013, 19% did so. Such disillusioned citizens are not easily convinced it is wise to assign government still more tasks. As recently as 2006, according to the Gallup poll, 69% of Americans believed it was the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans had healthcare coverage, compared to 28% who didn’t. By November 2013, after the Affordable Care Act website had been up and crashing a few weeks, 42% believed universal healthcare coverage was a federal responsibility and 56% did not. Thomas Edsall of the New York Times called the “disastrous launch” of Healthcare.gov a “fiasco” whose damaging effects on the Democratic party are “hard to overestimate.”
Even in the friendly confines of blue through-and-through municipalities and states, the “party of government” faces a dilemma: is its raison d’être to get the most out of government, or to defend the record and cost of government agencies and employees against all detractors? One reason New Yorkers felt confident about electing a tax-raising lefty like Bill de Blasio, the first Democratic mayor since 1993, is that they had “just enjoyed 12 years of ruthless efficiency under the [Michael] Bloomberg administration,” according to Matt Bai. “They take for granted the basic competence of government, and that makes all the difference when you ask them to expand it.” In office less than a year, however, de Blasio has already demonstrated his enthusiasm for the kind of governmental malpractice that made New York City a synecdoche for dysfunction under past mayors John Lindsay and David Dinkins: abandoning standards by which public school teachers could be evaluated, awarding them and other city workers contracts with generous raises but no new demands for productivity, and making these spending commitments on the basis of rosy assumptions about how much revenue will materialize years into the future.
Skepticism about liberal government’s ability to do the jobs it wants to take on may, but needn’t, conservatize the electorate because people who have given up on government may find other reasons not to give up on politics. In 1989 the Democratic candidates contesting the New York mayoral nomination—Dinkins, who wound up winning the general election; city comptroller Harrison Goldin; incumbent Ed Koch, seeking a fourth term; and businessman Richard Ravitch—devoted a great deal of time and energy debating legalized abortion (all supported it and argued about who did so most ardently) and capital punishment (which Koch favored and the others opposed). The pointlessness of these debates—New York’s mayor has no power to do anything about either issue—was the point. At a bad time in the city’s history, when crime, public services, and municipal finances appeared to be beyond anyone’s control, voters were sullen and cynical about city government’s ability to govern. But after people give up on the idea politics can be effective they may still engage in it as a way to be expressive: a politician signals where he stands on divisive issues so voters can know whether he’s one of us or one of them.
Even if they never figure out how to make Big Government work right, in ways that cause voters to love it again and want more of it, the Democratic-wing Democrats’ fallback hope is that the demographic trend is their friend. If, every year, your tribe gets a little bigger and theirs gets a little smaller, identity-politics tribalism is electorally very promising. A pro-government party that can’t govern straight might still win elections if politics isn’t about governing, but about whether this country is ours or theirs.
This brings us to the second reason the chickens Democrats are counting may not hatch. The “coalition of the ascendant” is key to the emerging Democratic majority, but demography is not necessarily destiny. The easiest, laziest, wrongest kind of prediction is a linear extrapolation of some past trend into the indefinite future: Mitt Romney received 27% of the Hispanic vote in 2012, the Hispanic proportion of the national population is projected to increase from 19% in 2010 to 28% in 2050, ergo the GOP is screwed. Since partisan dispositions are not genetic properties, and since what can be known with confidence about the history that will unfold in coming decades—affecting how people think, feel, and vote—is always a speck compared to all that cannot be known, it is reckless to make confident predictions about the American electorate’s inevitable destiny.
Indeed, not only political dispositions but demographic identities change over time. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reports, none too happily, majority-minority America could turn out to be a lot “whiter” than most people now expect. America’s Hispanics may be seen and see themselves as distinct from non-Hispanic whites, or may just come to consider themselves “another kind of white.” He points out the famous comedian Louis C.K. is half-Mexican, “but to most Americans, he’s just a white guy.” (The same was true of the baseball star Ted Williams.) Moreover, nearly one out of every six new marriages (15.5%) is between people of different racial groups. Bouie suspects the children of these unions, especially of the “out marriages” of Asians and Hispanics to whites, will come to “join the vast tapestry of American whiteness.”
Aggrievement or Achievement
Ultimately, people’s hearts and minds, not their melanin levels and Census answers, determine how they vote. Demographic changes will be less important to America’s political future than whether voters gravitate to the Democrats’ ethic of aggrievement or the Republicans’ ethic of achievement. Democrats are likely to dominate if most Americans come to doubt the practical and moral worth of individual striving, discipline, and rectitude. Such voters will turn to Democrats if they believe the real cause of their dissatisfactions is nothing they could have prevented, or can ever remedy through their own efforts, but is instead what has been done to them and hasn’t been done for them. The Democratic Party exists to assure such voters that a platform full of proposals for punishing the malefactors of great wealth, and uplifting millions who suffer through no fault of their own, is necessary and perhaps even sufficient for the pursuit and attainment of happiness.
The Republicans’ corresponding challenge is anything but easy, but is simple and clear: to vindicate the moral and practical worth of striving, discipline, and rectitude. In his First Inaugural Address Ronald Reagan called for making government “work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.” The goal is “a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination,” an economy where “all must share in the productive work” and “all must share in the bounty.” Virtue may be its own reward, but should not be its only reward. The health of the Republican Party—and, more importantly, of the republic—will be enhanced if the pride justly taken from doing the right thing is reliably accompanied by auxiliary benefits.