The Democratic Party might be united against the fractured GOP in the battle to reopen the government, but there are still deep divides within their own ranks as they ponder the post-Obama era. Crisis politics often result in temporary unity, but they also have a way of revealing rifts. The past year has demonstrated just how loosely tied many of the coalitions on both sides of the aisle seem to be. Here’s why that’s a good thing for America.
When Republicans lost big in 2008, the party moved further to the right, and due to a variety of factors, won big in 2010 midterms. Then they moved further to the right in 2012 and lost big again. Their response post-2012 seems to be to stick with the playbook and move further to the right yet again.
As Thomas Friedman wrote this week, redistricting advantages, big money from the far right fringe and an insulated media platform have created a dynamic where a small minority within the party can not only dictate policy, but actually be rewarded rather than punished electorally, even when those policies are grossly out of step with the vast majority of Americans.
In 2012, we saw bonafide conservatives with impeccable credentials like Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty, literally bulldozed by a new political element that was somehow able to elevate bozos like Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain into the upper level of Republican presidential politics, while candidates like Huntsman and Pawlenty failed to even get off of the ground.
As a result, we now see Republicans struggling to choose sides. Marco Rubio, still bruised from trying to work toward a bipartisan immigration reform that actually stood a chance of passing, has been steadily attempting to rebrand his conservative credentials and has recently aligned himself with the new Ted Cruz wing of the GOP. Meanwhile, the neo-con wing, unofficially led by Jeb Bush and suddenly the moderate voice in the party, is busy fighting state Tea Party campaigns against its signature issue – Common Core education reform – which has been met with almost as much vitriol as Obamacare.
House speaker John Boehner remains too scared to allow a clean government funding bill to reach the House floor, even though it’s certain to pass, because he and other top Republicans fear that their majority couldn’t withstand the far right backlash. At this rate, it’s hard to imagine what a potential GOP presidential field might look like in 2016. Perhaps Cruz won’t be far enough to the right to please Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers, and Jeb will become the next Jon Huntsman.
Democrats were the picture of unity this week, but don’t count on that lasting through the next two elections. Eight years of President Bush may have convinced the left that there was no room for internal conflict if they were going to regain influence, but after going with the candidate least likely to lose in 2000 and 2004, many liberals and progressives were primed to be swept away by a charismatic candidate, something they hadn’t seen since Clinton. Enter Barack Obama.
Obama’s appeal captured the imagination of the party’s progressive wing, despite a record that was very moderate and a machine-politics background that was quite routine. Much of the same could be said for Clinton, but eight years without a major military conflict, as well as historic economic growth and lip service toward progressive policy was enough to keep most liberal angst at bay.
However, the financial meltdown, and particularly the pro-big bank the reaction to it, lifted the cover on Democrats' dirty little secret: an unholy alliance with Wall Street, who’d become increasingly vital in filling election campaign coffers. No one paid much attention to all of the Clinton-era deregulation that helped set the stage for what happened under Bush, but when President Obama brought together a team of Clintonites to help “reform” our financial sector, the spotlight was cast.
A generation of disillusioned youth, much of which constituted the Hope and Change movement, was shocked by the more-of-the-same, too-big-to-fail economic policies and toothless reforms enacted by the Obama administration following the financial meltdown. Meanwhile, many voters too young to have remembered Slick Willy blowing the saxaphone on The Arsenio Hall Show have also come away with a very different understanding of Clintonianism.
According to most data, young voters are far more likely to be Democrats, but still likely to be considerably less knee-jerk liberal than their elders. Occupy Wall Street and the high percentage of youth support garnered by Ron Paul’s presidential candidacies say a lot about a generation of millennials who have not seen the fruits of Democratic policies that their parents and grandparents might have: inexpensive higher education, union pay scales and benefits, along with confidence that they’ll enjoy a relatively comfortable retirement so long as they play by the rules.
As a result, a prototypical Democratic candidate is unlikely to excite them, even if they spout practiced rhetoric and aren’t stodgy, old, rich white guys. In other words, Hillary Clinton is not looking nearly as attractive as a candidate as she did in 2008. Even if she gets the nomination, she’d almost certainly get more votes than anyone likely to survive the GOP’s primaries, but that if is bigger than it’s ever been before.
Outside of fringe candidates, the person most likely to excite the younger Democratic base is Elizabeth Warren, the junior Senator from Massachusetts, and the scourge of Wall Street deregulators. Warren is third only to Obama and Bill Clinton in terms of drawing crowds and cajoling money for Dems, but what remains so impressive is the former Harvard professor’s allure to even the anti-establishment, Occupy Wall Street Crowd.
Warren’s an actual reformer, not just someone who speaks the language. President Obama’s badly flubbed You Didn’t Build It line, was actually plagiarized from a bootlegged Warren video that went viral on Youtube. The reason it played when Warren spoke it and fell flat on the President seems pretty simple – Warren was making an informed and impassioned point, while he was borrowing a line that was at odds with many of his policies.
President Obama’s support may or may not hold a lot of sway with his former acolytes when 2016 comes around, and it’s hard to tell where his loyalties will fall, especially after Bill Clinton pretty much pinch hit for him at the 2012 convention. I could more easily see him backing Warren than Hillary, but he may end up pulling the same act as W in 2008, and just sit it out.
But while we are constantly told how polarized American politics have become, I really think it’s more clear than ever what a broad spectrum popular beliefs currently span. The country club/Chamber Of Commerce Republicans, the Rand Paul isolationists/libertarians, the Bush/Wolfowitz/Cheney neo-cons and the no-government Tea Party Types might all soon be ready to part ways.
At the same time, the increasingly hawkish, Wall Street Democrats aren’t going to have much to offer a generation of progressive millennials who want to reform finance, stay out of imperialist conflicts and deal seriously with the issues they will be most challenged by in their lifetimes – like global warming, dwindling energy reserves, tighter food supplies, surging debt, record unemployment and our shrinking global water supplies.
Of course the powers that be on both sides will try to keep the whole fractious mess together by warning their members that breaking apart will only assure victory to the other side, that for all its flaws, this system is still the best we’ve got. That might have been easy to believe once upon a time. But as Congress continues to demonstrate itself unable to solve even the simplest problems, voters might not be so sure.
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