More scenes from the Democratic crack-up
We've written before about the internal bickering that is growing louder, and more pointed, among national Democrats. Picking up on that theme, Walter Shapiro writes in Roll Call that what Democrats actually face is an identity crisis. It has very deep roots:
Ask almost any Republican member of Congress about his or her ideology, and you will get a variant of “I am a proud conservative.” Inquire about a Democrat’s political philosophy — and you will get anything from a speech about “progressive values” to a discourse on how “labels really don’t really describe who I am.”
It wasn’t that long ago when most northern Democrats happily identified themselves as liberals, casting themselves in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy.
But all that began to change in the 1980s under an assault from Ronald Reagan and TV attack ads lambasting Democratic candidates as “liberal, liberal, liberal” and “dangerously liberal.”
Suddenly, Democrats reinvented themselves as “progressives” as if Woodrow Wilson were back on the ballot. As liberal columnist Michael Kinsley mockingly put it in 1988, “In the 1950s, the term progressive was used by Americans who didn’t want to admit to being Communists. Today it’s used by people who don’t want to admit to being liberals.”
Thus were born the politics of the defensive crouch. Triangulating with gusto after the 1994 failure of his health-care plan, Bill Clinton tried to blunt the standard Reaganite critique of Democrats by embracing balanced budgets, welfare reform and tough anti-crime policies.
Barack Obama, who inherited the worst economic crisis since the Depression, did not have the luxury of treading cautiously. But his proposed 2009 stimulus package was smaller than many economists recommended and his health-care plan, with its emphasis on markets and incentives, was initially conceived in the naive hope of winning some Republican support.
Hillary Clinton — who like her husband was shaped by the three GOP landslides of the 1980s — embodied the dangers of combining Democratic political caution with a lack of personal charisma. As a result, it is already hard to remember a single major policy animating her 2016 campaign.
Shapiro offers vague suggestions for ways Democrats might pull themselves out of their deepening funk, but all of them rest on the assumption that the party's base wants to play along.
There is little solid evidence it does.
We suspect that Democrats will argue, point fingers, and stew in their juices for some time. That's typically what political parties out of power tend to do. What also tends to happen is some sort of breakthrough -- either a new batch of policy proposals (some merely warmed-over ideas from the past). Or a major change in leadership, which, even if it offers no new ideas, at least offers a new face. Or there is an external event over which politicians have no sway that scrambles all political narratives.
Republicans have been in the wilderness before. It was often unpleasant for them. But they hit on new approaches that captured the America voters' fancy -- be it the 1994 Contract with America, or the rise of the tea party movement. Those events took the political world by storm, and resulted in crushing Republican victories.
Democrats, however, lack the ideological room to maneuver Republicans have enjoyed. For all their own internal battles, Republicans -- broadly speaking -- have always remained true to a few basic principles. The arguments were over who was best able to act on those principles, and turn them into policy.
The Democratic base does not seem to want to be the adult in the room, has no ideas, and could care less about anything as un-cool as principles. They prefer instead to romance the far left and embrace the trappings of resistance.
That, as recent special election returns have shown, is the path to national defeat. And it seems, for now, that they have ever intention of following that path into the uncharted wilderness.
Here's hoping they remember to pack a lunch.