Sunday, January 20, 2013

Doubts about a ‘looming Democratic divide’


F. SCOTT Fitzgerald once observed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” There’s some concern, as expressed in a Friday story in Politico, that Team Obama II may be challenged to demonstrate that kind of equipoise — not out of any intellectual deficit, but because of the opposing social, economic and political forces furiously competing to dominate the president’s second-term agenda.

“As President Barack Obama approaches his second inaugural on Monday, he presides over a party that has largely papered over its divisions for the past four years thanks to the president’s commanding popularity,” says the story by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman.

“But almost as soon as the echo of Obama’s inaugural address fades and he instantly becomes a lame duck, Democrats are going to have to face a central and unresolved question about their political identity: Will they become a center-left, DLC-by-a-different-name party or return to a populist, left-leaning approach that mirrors their electoral coalition?”

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Three contentions seem to lie at the heart of the reporters’ analysis: the Democrats’ current electoral successes can be laid more or less solely at President Obama’s feet; such broad support, based in their eyes on a cult of personality specific to the president, isn’t transferable to another Democratic standard-bearer; and the Democratic Party’s future success hinges on it being one monolithic entity — one thing and only one thing in the future.

But Martin and Haberman propose a possible future of the Democratic Party that seems oddly, curiously disconnected from recent events — including a dispositive presidential election, and equally resonant downticket Democratic victories — that call some of their warnings into question.

And the writers assume that the Democrats won’t learn the obvious lessons of the Republicans, whose replacement of practicality with scorched-earth partisanship is on the verge of making them irrelevant.

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While conceding that Democrats have generally found common ground on the vast array of social issues, the writers find that “[f]or Democrats, the gulf is over fiscal and class issues, between their populists and their elites on how to appeal to a broad group of voters while retaining their traditional commitment to those in need. In other words, finding a way forward that represents the interest of their supporters making six (or seven) figures in places like McLean, Va., and Bryn Mawr, Pa., while staying true to middle-class backers in La Crosse, Wis., and doing right by the poor of Albuquerque and Philadelphia.”

Framing the issue this way overlooks what’s gotten the Democrats this far, overlooks the fact that reconciling the perspectives of those two seemingly disparate camps is exactly what Team Obama has done, in two election cycles. Look at campaign donations from “populists” and “elites.”

About 20 percent of the 2008 Obama campaign’s fundraising totals came from Wall Street, Reuters reported. Much of the rest was raised through the viral crowdsourcing approach to fundraising that Team Obama elevated to new heights that year. Team Obama raised about $750 million in 2008, ABC News reported, citing figures from the Federal Election Commission.

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FAST FORWARD to 2012: Obama’s Wall Street donations were down markedly from 2008, but look at the overall. The Obama campaign raised $714.6 million during the 2012 election cycle — almost as much as in 2008 — and well above the Romney campaign totals of $446.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

This time, like in 2008, it was everyday people who made the difference. “The Obama campaign relied heavily on a groundswell of small donations from grassroots support, with 34 percent of the Obama war chest made up of donations of $200 or less. The total amount of money the Obama campaign raised from donors who gave more than $200, however, amounted to about twice as much as was raised from small donors who gave less than $200,” according to Truthout.

That’s not to say that Wall Street money shouldn’t matter to a presidential campaign; it is to say that Team Obama has convincingly won elections by dancing with the people who brung ‘em — the American people — and carefully weighing Wall Street concerns over regulation against the issues important to citizens in the millions.

And the phenomenal success of the securities and financial industry under this president — the Dow’s up 60 percent since he took office in January 2009 — strongly suggests that Wall Street’s antagonisms have long been exaggerated, at best.

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On matters of policy, Martin and Haberman focus on “the coming debate over Social Security and Medicare,” particularly the “razor sharp” differences over raising the eligibility age for future Medicare recipients from 65 to 67, as a way to achieve savings in the federal budget.

There are intraparty differences to be sure, and lines in the sand that true-believer Democrats like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown won’t cross. Brown, among others, is adamant about not changing the eligibility age. But as surely as the Republicans have lately come around to reality on the debt-ceiling debate when faced with just how unblinkingly nonpartisan financial mathematics can be, Brown and other progressive Democratic stalwarts can be expected to ultimately come around, unwilling to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, the Democrat who now heads the National Governors Association, grasps the need for a clear-eyed view of changing in social programs hailing from the New Deal era of FDR, and the Great Society era of LBJ. “I hope we’re the party of math,” he told Politico. “It doesn’t make any sense to put our head in the sand on this issue.”

Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist public-policy think tank, told Politico that tackling issues of entitlement reform now just makes sense.

“It’s insane to not try to do a big deal right now, because every minute you wait the deal gets worse,” he said. “Do we really want to turn over entitlement reform to Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio? Because let’s face it, [Republicans] have a 50 percent chance of being president. The same party rarely gets third terms. Why gamble instead of having President Obama cut this deal?”

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THERE’S LEGISLATIVE and political pragmatism in these perspectives; it’s not unreasonable to believe that Democrats — who’ve successfully used consensus-building in two elections — will embrace that practicality in the negotiations just getting started. To descend into bitter, partisan squabbles over what will, ultimately, be something of a fait accompli would make the Democrats no less divided than the GOP is already.

The recent gains of Democrats in the Senate and the House refute the notion that the party’s success is an Obama-driven phenomenon. Since some of the victories Democrats enjoyed in the 2012 elections didn’t come as a result of Obama White House initiatives in the first place, the question of whether the party has a winning future beyond Obama has an obvious answer: Look closer.

Look at Democratic advances not just vis-à-vis the White House, but also according to the outcome of state races resulting in the 113th Congress, the most diverse in American history, and a tide of left-leaning reform on matters from marriage equality to recreational marijuana use to (in New York state) sweeping changes in gun laws mounted independent of the Obama White House altogether.

That’s not a Democratic Party captive to a cult of one personality; that’s a party responsive to the concerns of its grassroots. That’s not evidence of a Democratic Party confronting a divide; the November election (and its record-setting vote totals) point to the rise of a party committed both to populist principles and political practicality — and one determined not to make the same reflexively partisan mistakes as its Republican counterpart.

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As their way of distilling the polarities central to their hypothesis, Martin and Haberman say the “looming Democratic divide” they conjure is symbolized by the divergent styles and constituencies of Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff and currently mayor of Chicago; and Elizabeth Warren, the fiercely populist consumer advocate and newly-minted senator from Massachusetts.

“As 2016 grows nearer, and their presidential hopefuls begin openly maneuvering, Democrats must decide whether they want to be principally known as the party of Rahm Emanuel or the party of Elizabeth Warren.”

The writers implicitly establish the ideal Democratic identity as an either/or construct; to them the future of the party lies in embracing either Emanuel’s machine, strategic, organizationally-driven, top-down style, or Warren’s populist, grassroots, bottom-up, retail political style.

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THIS IS a false dichotomy of presumed polar opposites. The Politico writers’ argument presupposes that the Democratic Party is subject to an existential zero-sum-game — that it’s got to be all of one thing and very little, or none, of something else. That the Democratic Party must be, from the standpoint of striving to achieve an absolutist self-definition, just like the Republican Party.

We have the mosaic results of an election to show us just how unnecessary that really is. The November election ratified a new approach to our politics; the millions who voted for Obama’s re-election, and who enhanced the Democrats’ majority in the Senate and strengthened their presence in the House, point to a new calculus. For these Democratic voters, reflecting an emerging demographic coalition, it’s not “either/or” that defines the party’s nascent range of diversities; it’s “both/and.”

The election of 20 women in the United States Senate; and (throughout the 113th Congress) 43 African Americans, 31 Latinos, 12 Asians, seven LGBT Americans, 16 veterans from the Iraq or Afghan wars, and the first Hindu strongly suggest that a majority of the American people are comfortable with resisting a monolithic definition of their party — starting with rejection of a monolithic composition of their party leadership.

There’s a wide spectrum of the Democratic experience that falls between Rahm Emanuel and Elizabeth Warren. For Democrats to fall into the trap of singular, intractable self-identity is to invite the same obsolescence the Republican Party is desperately trying to stave off right now.

Image credits: Politico logo: © 2013 Allbritton Communications. Obama: Lawrence Jackson/The White House. Wall Street donations chart: OpenSecrets.org/Center for Responsive Politics. 

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