The Coming Democratic Civil War

Control of the president’s liberal-leaning agenda has been snatched by centrist Democrats in the Senate. They may just save his presidency.

AP, Landov and Getty Images

Control of the president’s liberal-leaning agenda has been snatched by centrist Democrats in the Senate. They may just save his presidency. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

The most important debate in Washington today isn’t happening between Democrats and Republicans—it’s happening between centrist Democrats and liberal Democrats. Not just the budget, but control of congress in the 2010 elections could hang in the balance.

Late last week, 16 Democratic senators declared independence by forming a new centrist caucus. Led by Indiana’s Evan Bayh, Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln and Delaware’s Tom Carper, the group includes senators from every region and some of the party’s rising stars, including Virginia’s Mark Warner and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill. Together, their numbers are more than sufficient to deny liberals a rubber-stamp majority in the Senate. The center is flexing its muscle and now holds the balance of power.

Together, their numbers are more than sufficient to deny liberals a rubber-stamp majority in the Senate. The center is flexing its muscle and now holds the balance of power.

The group quickly came under fire from both the netroots and old-line liberals as a traitorous “over-class” challenge to the Obama agenda because of its focus on fiscal responsibility. The centrists answered in a mission-statement in a Washington Post op-ed:

As moderate leaders, it is not our intent to water down the president's agenda. We intend to strengthen and sustain it. Moderation is not a mathematical process of finding the center for its own sake. Practical solutions are practical because they offer our best chance to make a difference in people's lives today without forcing our children to pick up the tab tomorrow. The stakes are too high for Democrats to fear a policy debate. Such debates produce better legislation.

They’re right—and they may actually prove to be the president’s best allies in the long run. Because the Obama administration cannot allow itself be defined by the liberal House leadership’s agenda if they want to unite the nation and usher in a post-partisan era. And right now this centrist coalition is the only constructive force that can check liberal excesses and prevent a broad-based backlash.

We’ve seen this movie before. A charismatic new Democrat president blessed with unified control of Congress gets his legs cut out from under him when the electorate decides that the combined package is more liberal than they’d like.

Americans actually like the checks and balances of divided government—that’s why we’ve voted for it almost two-thirds of the time since 1955. And Obama’s job is made more difficult by the fact that he is trying to create a durable center-left coalition is what is essentially a center-right nation.

Committed liberals hate hearing that last point, but consider the facts: Exit polls in 2008 showed that 44 percent of American voters are self-described moderates, while 34 percent call themselves conservatives and 22 percent describe themselves as liberal. These numbers were basically unchanged from four years before. Obama managed to win not just 90 percent of liberals, but 60 percent of moderates and 20 percent of conservatives, building bridges across partisan divides to win virtually all the swing states in the nation. That brought his victory total to 28 states, compared to Reagan’s first-term 44-state win in 1980 and Bill Clinton’s 32 states in 1992. President Obama has a mandate to govern from the center, not the far-left.

After Democrats suffered the excesses of the Bush era, it’s understandable that some would want to exert an equal and opposite influence while they control Congress. But reading the 2008 election as a liberal ideological mandate is a major mistake.

As Bayh & Co. wrote, “Many independents voted for President Obama and the contours of his change agenda, but they will not rubber-stamp it. They are wary of ideological solutions and are overwhelmingly pragmatic.”

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So what do voters in the center believe? A post-election survey by TargetPoint Consulting shows that 96 percent of centrist voters consider themselves conservative to moderate on fiscal issues, while 86 percent of centrist voters see themselves as liberal to moderate on social issues. To put it another way, only 4 percent of centrists describe themselves as fiscal liberals while just 14 percent describe themselves as social conservatives.

It’s not a coincidence that the Obama administration’s first stumble came when they outsourced the stimulus bill to the liberal House leadership, who larded it up with a decades-worth of wish list of appropriations. Despite the president’s hopes of gaining Republican support, the bill received no GOP votes (a decision aided by internal polling which showed independent voters turning against the bill) and lost 11 Democrats. Dissident centrist Democrat Cong. Jim Cooper described the perspective of old-line liberals aligned with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying, “They don’t mind the partisan fighting ‘cause that’s what they are used to. In fact, they’re really good at it. And they’re a little bit worried about what a post-partisan future might look like.”

It was an effort to improve the stimulus bill that first drew this centrist coalition of 16 Democratic senators together. Liberals called them conservative and conservatives called them liberal, but they successfully worked with 3 Republicans—Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter—to pass the stimulus package while also saving taxpayers $108 billion in proposed pork barrel spending. After this stand, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman—who had previously criticized the Obama administration for not spending more money in the recovery package—turned his sights on the Gang of 16, calling them “ the destructive center.” They were seen as turncoats by activists on the right and left, but especially by the House leadership.

This disconnect is not surprising. The Democratic House committee chairs are creatures of the 60’s and 70’s, like Charles Rangel, Barney Frank. and Henry Waxman. They are attitudinally out of step with the more centrist southern and western candidates recruited by then-DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel in the run up to the 2006 and 2008 elections. But reaching out to the center is how the majority was won.

What old line House liberals seem to forget is that their approval ratings were even lower than President Bush’s when he slunk out of office. And there are already signs that the Obama administration has suffered from association with the left’s agenda. In January, 44 percent of the American people believed that President Obama was listening primarily to the moderates in his party, according to the Pew Research Center. Two months later, only 30 percent see the president listening to moderates while 44 percent say that liberals now have the presidents’ ear. Perhaps not coincidentally, in some polls the president’s overall approval numbers are now below 60 percent for the first time while more than a quarter of Americans disapprove of his job performance. This is a vast improvement over Bush, but a sobering reality check shows that at this point in his presidency, Jimmy Carter enjoyed a 72 percent approval rating.

This fight is far from over. has taken out advocacy ads against the centrist coalition, borrowing a page from the playbook of conservative Republicans who make it their hobby to hunt down party heretics. But tearing down the big tent is precisely what has led Republicans to be irrelevant in the current debate—they are too busy playing to the base to be concerned with constructive outreach to the center. At a time when the American people want solutions, not hyper-partisan bickering, it’s a recipe for self-defeat.

The new centrist coalition exists not to block the president’s agenda but to provide ballast behind his rhetoric of fiscal responsibility in the face of liberal congressional leaders who want to listen only to the stimulus spending side of the Obama equation. They are trying to help President Obama realize the still ill-defined post-partisan vision he promised the American people. That’s why now is the right time to assert the strength of the center.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon was director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as chief speechwriter for then-Mayor Giuliani.