Lincoln's defeat was unusual. More often, ideologically driven liberal candidates simply lose primaries without posing a threat to Democratic officeholders. As a result, it’s not clear which Democratic faction has the heart of the base. In the 1980s and '90s, the party was controlled by liberal special interests and labor bosses, but Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council won by understanding that the Democratic rank and file was largely moderate. (In this, the Democrats are structurally different from the GOP, whose rank and file is overwhelmingly conservative.) The Democratic primary of 2008 may have been bruising and divisive, but it largely revolved around personality and style, not ideology.
Both factions tend to claim Obama, whose signature is a combination of conciliatory policy tactics and broadly progressive goals. Liberals note that on December 4, just two days after the Third Way op-ed came out, Obama gave a major speech calling for new action on income inequality. Centrists counter that Obama has agreed in principle to entitlement reforms.
The tangled legacy Obama will leave his party underlies many of the current disagreements raging within the Democratic coalition. The populist-centrist split, which revolves around how much taxes ought to rise on the wealthy and whether Social Security and Medicare benefits ought to be curtailed, is only the beginning. Education reform is another point of contention: Teachers unions loathe the pro-charter-school policies embraced by Obama’s education department and many Democratic elites. Obama’s tough approach to national security and civil liberties has alienated many of the progressives who supported him as an antiwar candidate in 2008; his abortive push for intervention in Syria began the slide in his approval rating that continues today. Environmentalists continue to pressure the administration not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Important Democratic constituencies such as Latinos and unions feel badly let down by the Obama presidency and are kept in the tent only by the conviction that Republicans are even worse.
Most Democrats assume that, given the electorate’s increasing diversity and Republican dysfunction, the party still has a winning hand—and they may be right. If Hillary Clinton seeks the party’s nomination, she might go virtually unopposed, her effortless coronation obviating any divisive intra-party debates. So much for the great Democratic soul-searching.
“It’s the usual inside-the-Beltway panic by the Democrats,” Howard Dean, the progressive former Vermont governor and former Democratic National Committee chairman, told me. “My advice is to get a grip. There’s nothing voters dislike more than cowering. We should punch back.”
The party’s current doldrums, and the prospect of a spate of losses next year, have some party leaders warning Democrats not to get complacent. Even the most bullish Obama supporters acknowledge that the party cannot afford to take its current advantages for granted. “I don’t think we should move forward with a false sense of security that Republicans are so out of the mainstream that they could never win,” Obama strategist David Axelrod told me. “It behooves the Democratic Party to continue to advance new ideas.”
Last month, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia gubernatorial election, a low-turnout contest the president's party traditionally loses. Despite being an imperfect candidate, McAuliffe succeeded in painting his opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, as an extreme Tea Party ideologue. Democrats pointed to his victory as proof that conservative Republicans continue to alienate swing-state voters.
But on the same day, Republican Governor Chris Christie was resoundingly reelected in New Jersey, seeming to prove that a charismatic personality who repudiates the extremes of the national GOP can appeal to crossover voters and avoid the taint of the Republican brand. To some Democrats, Christie’s victory was a warning not just of a potentially formidable Christie presidential candidacy but of the difficulties Democrats could face if Republicans get their act together.
“They’re the stupid party now,” Al From, the founder of the now-defunct DLC, warned in a recent speech. “But they’re not going to be stupid forever.” If Republicans manage to mend the current rifts that so help their opponents and unite behind a candidate with broad appeal, a Democratic Party already on the rocks could find itself in serious trouble.