Democrats, Forever Changed

By pressing ahead on health care, President Obama is ending a decades-long internal debate within his party—and the Democratic Party will never be the same.

David Karp / SIPA

This week’s last-ditch health care push may or may not prove the defining battle of Barack Obama’s presidency. It may or may not prove a defining moment in the history of the American welfare state. But here’s a good bet: The Democratic Party will never be the same.

For close to a decade now, Democrats have been arguing with each other about what kind of country this is, and what kind of party they should be. On one side stands a group of politicians, consultants and wonks who believe that America is, at its core, a pretty conservative place. These Democrats form something of a political generation. In their youth, they saw their party move left during Vietnam and get booted from power in 1968. Then they saw George McGovern, the most left-wing major party presidential candidate of the twentieth century, lose 49 states. Then they saw Jimmy Carter’s presidency destroyed in part because he looked weak during the Iran hostage crisis. Then they saw Ronald Reagan, once considered as an unelectable right-wing nut, become the most popular president of their adult lives.

In the late 1980s, they responded to these disasters by creating the Democratic Leadership Council, which pushed the party to the right on welfare, taxes, trade, crime and defense. They claimed vindication when a president of the DLC, Bill Clinton, became president, and claimed double vindication when, after Clinton pushed for universal health care and got creamed in 1994, he won reelection two years later by triangulating against the liberals in his own party.

For this generation of Democrats, which includes Al From, Mark Penn, Joe Lieberman, William Galston, Elaine Kamarck, Dick Morris, Ed Koch, Jane Harman, Evan Bayh, and to some extent Bill and Hillary Clinton, being a liberal is like walking past a bear. Move cautiously and reassuringly and the bear will purr contentedly. But make any sudden or threatening gestures, and you’ll be mauled because, fundamentally, the bear distrusts liberals. As Galston and Kamarck wrote in their famed 1989 essay “The Politics of Evasion”—a document that helped define the “don’t scare the bear” wing of the party—Democrats can pass liberal programs “but these programs must be shaped and defended within an inhospitable ideological climate.” To pretend that the American people are liberal at heart is to evade political reality, with devastating results.

By the late 1990s, “don’t scare the bear” Democrats pretty much dominated Washington. But in the Bush years, a new faction began to emerge. These Democrats were mostly newer to politics. They had never seen a McGovern or Mondale mauled for being too far to the left. What they had seen was the post-1994 Bill Clinton, who shied away from ambitious liberal reform. And they had seen the Iraq War, which DLC types largely supported, partly out of fear that opposing it would allow Republicans to paint Democrats as soft on defense.

By 2003, this new group of Democrats was angry as hell. The Iraq War, which party elders had mostly backed, was proving a disaster, and to make matters worse, Republicans were clobbering Democrats as weak anyway. So these Democrats began fashioning a different theory: Perhaps the problem wasn’t that Democrats looked weak because they were too liberal, perhaps the problem was that Democrats looked weak because they didn’t stand up for what they really believed. In 2005, the historian Rick Perlstein—who became something of a hero to these folks—published a book entitled The Stock Ticker and the Super Jumbo. Republicans, he argued, were like Boeing: a company that persevered in building a super jumbo airplane even when the market was bad, and thus built a dominant brand. Democrats were like the stock ticker, constantly shifting with the public mood and thus winning momentary victories but failing to build a brand people could identify with.

To change, Perlstein argued, “Democrats need to make commitments, or a network of commitments, that do not waver from election to election.” They must stick with them “even if they don’t succeed” at any given moment because doing unpopular things because you believe in them convinces Americans that you have core beliefs, which in the long term strengthens your brand.

In 2004, Howard Dean ran as the suberjumbo candidate for president, insisting that his opponents for the Democratic nomination, most of whom had supported the Iraq War, needed a “backbone transplant.” Dean lost, but his message won. His campaign helped to catalyze the “netroots”—blogs like Daily Kos and organizations like MoveOn—which told the story of the bear a very different way. In their version, Democrats didn’t get mauled because they made sudden, aggressive moves. After all, the Clinton and Bush-era Democrats hadn’t been aggressive at all. They had been mauled for precisely the opposite reason: because they didn’t fight back. Show the bear that you’re not afraid, they argued—look tough and defiant rather than timid and craven—and you’ll gain respect. In 2006, two liberal social scientists, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, answered Galston and Kamarck’s 1989 essay in a paper entitled, “The Politics of Definition.” The ideological climate, they argued, wasn’t inhospitable to liberals. It was inhospitable to weathervanes. If Democrats defined themselves—if they stood up for their beliefs in the face of political threats—they would win in the end.

Obama has chosen Karl Rove’s politics of base mobilization over Dick Morris’s politics of crossover appeal, with consequences not merely for how he campaigns for Democrats in 2010, but for he campaigns for himself in 2012.

In Bush’s second term, the Halpin and Teixeira faction grew stronger. Congressional Democrats held firm against Bush’s effort to partially privatize Social Security, and forced him to back down. The netroots were further buoyed by the 2006 midterms, when Democrats ran against the Iraq War, and won control of Congress. Perhaps the Democrats were building their superjumbo after all.

During the 2008 presidential primaries, each of the Democratic Party’s factions had a candidate. The DLC types—led by Mark Penn—mostly backed Hillary Clinton, who refused to repudiate her vote for the Iraq War, took a hawkish line on Iran and defended her husband’s centrist record. Many in the superjumbo faction, by contrast, signed on with John Edwards, who embraced the netroots’ argument that in an era of partisan polarization, Democrats had to stop searching for the political center and beat Karl Rove at his own game.

The mystery candidate was Barack Obama. On the one hand, he attacked Hillary Clinton—and by extension the DLC Democrats more generally—for living in fear of the bear. “Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt [Romney] or Rudy [Giuliani] might say about us just won’t do,” he declared. “If we are really serious about winning this election Democrats, we can’t live in fear of losing it.”

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With rhetoric like this, and his opposition to the Iraq War, Obama attracted his share of superjumbo Democrats. But other netroots activists harbored suspicions. For while Obama was telling Democrats to hold fast to their core beliefs, he was also depicting himself as the candidate who could transcend the red-blue divide. If Obama struck some in the netroots as a more polished Howard Dean, a guy who wanted to dream big and fight hard, he struck others as a more polished Joe Lieberman, a guy who wanted to be loved on the other side of the aisle.

Nothing in Obama’s first year resolved that ambiguity. He passed a stimulus bill that Republicans called too big but many liberals called too small. He altered some of Bush’s policies on civil liberties, but kept others. He sent more troops to Afghanistan, but set a deadline for their withdrawal. He pushed a big health care reform, but didn’t fight for a public option. A year into Obama’s presidency, the Democratic Party’s two factions could each still credibly claim him as its own, which is to say, the decade-old argument lingered on.

Now it is over. When Scott Brown won his Senate seat, he made Obama choose. On the one hand, he handed the White House an excuse to abandon comprehensive reform and return to the incremental, small-bore approach that Clinton pursued after 1994. The Brown victory, in fact, seemed to illustrate the “don’t scare the bear” theory perfectly. Obama had passed the stimulus and bailed out the banks and taken over part of the auto industry and for the American people, it was too much liberal activism too fast. Polls not only showed Americans turning against Obama’s health care bill, they showed them turning against big government more generally. Continuing to pursue comprehensive reform in this inhospitable environment, warned former Carter pollster Patrick Caddell and former Clinton pollster Douglas Schoen, in language that echoed “the Politics of Evasion,” would bring political calamity. “Wishing, praying or pretending” that the American people support health care reform more than they do, they insisted, “will not change these outcomes.”

Superjumbo Democrats, by contrast, argued that the public wasn’t so much anti-reform as they were anti-the legislative process that had produced reform. But more fundamentally, they argued that the American people would respect Democrats for not backing down in the face of adversity. The party might still lose seats this fall, but over time health care reform would prove popular, and the party’s willingness to fight for it would strengthen the Democratic brand.

Why exactly Obama—advised by David Axelrod, Rahm Emmanuel and Valerie Jarrett—decided to double down on health care remains unclear. But it’s a good bet that President Hillary Clinton—advised by Mark Penn—would have acted differently. And in acting the way he did, Obama has turned himself into a superjumbo Democrat. For the foreseeable future, he has forfeited any chance of bridging the red-blue divide. Prominent Republicans have already announced that if Democrats try to pass health care via reconciliation, they will not work across the aisle to pass anything major this year. Conversely, Obama has cemented his bond with the netroots. It doesn’t really matter that the health care reform bill he is fighting for isn’t particularly left-wing. For the netroots, a politicians’ ideological purity has always been less important than his willingness to resist pressure from the other side, which is exactly what Obama has just done.

Whether health care reform passes or not, Obama has embraced polarization over triangulation. He has chosen Karl Rove’s politics of base mobilization over Dick Morris’s politics of crossover appeal, with consequences not merely for how he campaigns for Democrats in 2010, but for he campaigns for himself in 2012. And that’s a disaster for “don’t scare the bear” Democrats whether Obamacare passes or not. The reason is that the DLC wing of the party is much more top-down than the MoveOn wing. It has always wielded influence primarily through elected leaders rather than grassroots activists. But today, Obama is the only leader in the Democratic Party who really matters. As the retirement of Evan Bayh illustrates, there are few nationally prominent DLC-aligned politicians left. (The one person who could have rallied that faction of the party against Obama is now his secretary of state). The DLC wing’s best hope for relevance, therefore, was that Obama himself would restrain the party’s base, that his White House would nurture a new generation of centrist candidates.

That hope is now gone. From top to bottom, Democrats have decided to bet the party’s future on the belief that Americans prefer bold liberals to cautious ones. Now it’s up to the bear.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.