Why The Left Thinks Obama Can't Govern

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Jonathan Chait is smart and acerbic and he gets a lot of things right in his extensive New Republic story on the relationship between Congressional Democrats and President Obama. Chait offers three principal reasons to explain why unified control of Congress and the White House usually isn't as seamless under Democrats as under Republicans. Each of his arguments tells part of the story. He's right that there is a tradition of Congressional independence among Democrats; that the party is divided, not unified, by the influence of business; and that Democratic Members are less likely than Republicans to see their fate as closely tied to the president (even though history has shown the clear fallacy of that point of view). But Chait's story omits, as the Left usually does, two other critical elements of the relationship between Congressional Democrats and Obama.

First, Democrats are far more united under Obama than they have been in the past; as we noted earlier this year, Congressional Democrats are voting together at a rate greatly exceeding their unity as recently as under Bill Clinton, much less under Jimmy Carter. It's easy to forget that no Senate Democrats and only seven House Democrats voted against the final passage of Obama's stimulus plan; by contrast, six Senate and 41 House Democrats voted against final passage of Clinton's economic plan in 1993. Yes, Congressional Democrats are now requiring changes in the Obama budget, but it's also easy to forget that Republican defections (albeit from a smaller number of members) forced Bush to trim his tax cuts in both 2001 and 2003.


While party unity was a defining characteristic of the GOP majority when it held unified control earlier this decade, it's a mistake to recall Republicans as simply Xeroxing Bush's proposals. More important, Chait ignores the single largest reason why Democrats don't display as much party loyalty as Republicans: the Democratic coalition is inherently more diverse and less homogenous than the Republican coalition. That's true in the Democratic voting coalition: as I pointed out in a post last week, liberals constitute only about one-third of self-identified Democrats, while conservatives comprise about two-thirds of self-identified Republicans. (Just under two-fifths of Obama voters described themselves as liberals, while about three-fifths of John McCain voters called themselves conservatives.) The same pattern holds in Congress. One reason Congressional Republicans held together so well under Bush is that so many of them were elected by constituencies that also voted for him; there was an unbroken line of allegiance from presidential to Congressional results.

 

After the 2004 election, 44 of the 55 Senate Republicans (80%) came from states that voted both times for Bush; likewise all but 18 of the 232 House Republicans at that point came from districts that voted for Bush in 2004. By contrast, the best current estimate is that 49 of the 257 House Democrats come from districts that voted for McCain in 2008, and only 33 of the 58 Democratic Senators (57%) come from states that voted Democratic in each of the past two elections. Thirteen Democratic Senators were elected in states that voted Republican in each of the past two presidential elections, and another 12 came from states that voted Republican in 2004 but not 2008. In all, then, fully 25 Democratic Senators come from states that have voted Republican in at least one of the past two elections.

 

All of these numbers make clear that Democrats today are competing across a much wider terrain than Republicans--both demographically and geographically. On Election Day, that's a great asset. That broader reach is why Obama won nearly 80 more Electoral College votes than Bush did even in his 2004 highpoint, and why Democrats today enjoy larger majorities in both the House and Senate than Republicans did at any point during their 12 years of control. But for Democrats, the price of that broader electoral reach is more ideological diversity than Republicans operate with; that's the principal reason Democrats cannot expect to consistently match the level of uniformity that Republicans achieved during their years in the majority. And that's the overriding fact missing from Chait's analysis (as well as the similar indictments of Congress from other liberal voices). During their years in the majority, the vast majority of Congressional Republicans operated with similar political incentives and ideological inclinations since they were chosen by broadly similar electorates. That's simply less true for Democrats.

 

Yes, Obama performed well in places Democrats usually don't (he won four states that had voted Democratic no more than once since 1964), and yes the ossified electoral red-blue divisions of the past two decades show signs of evolving, but notwithstanding all that, Democrats from Indiana, North Carolina or Arkansas still do not face the same electoral incentives as Democrats from California, Connecticut and New York.

 

This diversity could--should--be the Democrats' greatest political asset--especially against a GOP that has, over the past 15 years, increasingly defined itself as a ridigly conservative, excessively Southernized party that is, on too many days, more a club than a coalition. But if the Left operates with unrealistic expectations about its ability to dictate the Democratic agenda, and if it views efforts to accommodate party centrists (much less moderate Republican perspectives inside and outside of Congress) as a form of betrayal, the Democrats' diversity could become their downfall. Chait is absolutely right that moderate Democrats cannot escape the consequences in 2010 if voters view Obama as a failure--as Obama himself recently argued to Congressional Democrats during a private meeting, according to this under-noticed account from National Journal's Brian Friel.

 

But history suggests the most effective response to that danger isn't to bludgeon or bemoan the Democratic centrists; it's for Obama and the party Congressional leadership to construct compromises on their priorities that can attract support from a wide range of perspectives inside-and outside-of the party. -30-- (National Journal reporter Scott Bland contributed.)

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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