Why Obama Can't Satisfy The Left

Considering that Democrats last November won their most sweeping electoral victory since 1964, and now enjoy unified control of government for the first time since 1994, the organized Left doesn't seem very happy these days. Some of that discontent reflects the difficulty of moving from an opposition party that perpetually prizes conflict to a governing party that must compromise to advance an agenda. But it also reflects a potentially destabilizing imbalance between liberal expectations and assets rooted in little-discussed truths about the balance of power within the Democratic coalition.

As Democrats settle in to power, two distinct, and somewhat dissonant, lines of complaint are emerging from leaders on the left. One charges that Obama is deferring too much to Wall Street and its party allies in his response to the financial crisis. In just the past week, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has written that Obama's financial stabilization plan fills him with "despair"; his colleague, Frank Rich, has suggested that Obama's handling of the AIG bonuses might be his "Katrina moment" and Internet doyenne Arianna Huffington has urged Obama to strip authority for the financial rescue from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. That's insufficient for liberal columnist and activist David Sirota: he wants Obama to fire Geithner because "he's either lying to the public or totally incompetent."

The left's other complaint is targeted at moderate-to-conservative Congressional Democrats resisting elements of Obama's agenda. Obama's budget has provided the initial flashpoint. Several liberal groups have moved over the past week to heighten pressure on "blue dog" or "New Democrats" in the House and Senate to back Obama's budget blueprint and to support him if he tries to use the reconciliation process to force through his universal health care and climate change initiatives. That effort includes relatively non-confrontational radio and television ads from MoveOn.Org and Americans United for Change aimed at Democratic, as well as Republican, members. The Campaign for America's Future, led by veteran liberal activists Bob Borosage and Roger Hickey, has taken a sharper tack with its "Dog the Blue Dogs" campaign; the campaign aims to mobilize grassroots pressure on center-right Democrats to abandon what the group has provocatively called "treacherous opposition" to Obama's budget. . "The more conservative Democrats are posturing themselves to be the deal breakers and if they want to play that game, they need to be reminded that people in their states and in their districts are really hurting," says Hickey.

Looming above all these individual campaigns is the Accountability Now political action committee that a coalition of liberal groups and Internet activists recently formed to fund primary challenges against Congressional Democrats who, in the group's eyes, "sell out the interests of their constituents in favor of corporations."

The common thread linking these complaints are the conviction that the Obama administration (on finance) and elements of the Democratic Congressional majority (on the budget and potentially other pieces of Obama's domestic agenda) are temporizing at a moment they should be bold. These liberal leaders are frustrated because even at this moment of unified control, Obama and the Democratic Congress are not embracing their agenda (nationalization of the banks, unfettered public investment and social spending) as unreservedly as they hoped (or expected).

It's easy to imagine that frustration compounding in the months ahead if Obama and Congressional Democrats pursue a legislative compromise on health care that jettison's the left's top priority-a public competitor to the private insurance companies-or if they accept climate change legislation that makes big concessions to coal-dependent Midwest states. By that point, today's shrieks might sound like throat-clearing.

Regardless of the merits of the left's arguments on each of those individual debates, there's a structural reason why Obama and Congressional Democrats may not prove as responsive to their demands as they hope. Liberals aren't as big a component of the Democratic coalition as many of the Left's leaders believe. Moderate voters are much more important to Democratic success than liberal voters. And liberals are also less important to Democrats than conservatives are to Republicans. That means liberals generally have less leverage than they recognize in these internal party arguments-and less leverage than conservatives can exert in internal struggles over the GOP's direction. "Liberals are less central to the Democratic coalition than conservatives are to the Republican coalition," says Andy Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

That contrast is apparent from two different angles: identification and behavior. In cumulative Pew data for 2008, Kohut says, only one-third of self-identified Democrats described themselves as liberals; the rest identified as moderates or conservatives. For Republicans the proportions were reversed: two-thirds of Republicans considered themselves conservatives, while only one-third identified as moderates or liberals. Gallup's findings are similar: in their cumulative 2008 data, just 39% of self-identified Democrats described themselves as liberals, while 70% of Republicans identified as conservatives.

Looking at Obama's actual vote in 2008 reinforces the story. According to the Edison/Mitofsky Election Day exit polls, liberals provided only 37% of Obama's total votes. Moderates (50%) and conservatives (13%) provided far more. By contrast, conservatives provided almost three-fifths of John McCain's votes, with moderates contributing only about one-third and liberals a negligible 5%.

The bottom line is that, compared to Republicans, Democrats are operating with a much more diverse electoral coalition-and one in which the party's ideological vanguard plays a smaller role. That's one reason why in a Pew post-election survey, nearly three-fifths of Democrats said they wanted the party to move in a more moderate (rather than liberal) direction, while three-fifths of Republicans said they wanted the party to move right. The parties "have a difference in our bases," says Jim Kessler, vice president of Third Way, a group that works with centrist Democratic Senators. "Certainly the most loyal part of the Democratic base is going to be self-identified liberals, but numerically moderates are a bigger portion of the coalition, so there is going to be some tension."

As Kessler notes, the Democratic coalition tilts even slightly further toward moderates in swing states and districts. In the Democrats' North Carolina and Colorado Senate victories last November self-identified liberals provided only 31% of the vote for both Kay Hagan and Mark Udall respectively; in Alaska, liberals provided just 29% of Mark Begich's votes. That pattern is especially important because Democrats today hold so many more swing seats in Congress than Republicans: 22 of the 58 Senate Democrats, for instance, were elected by states that voted both times for President Bush. (By contrast, just 3 of the 41 Senate Republicans were elected by states that voted both times against President Bush.)

Kessler believes the left's threat to mount primaries against centrist Democrats is likely to be "relatively ineffectual" precisely because the Members who most antagonize liberals tend to represent places where liberals lack enough leverage to oust them. Yet Kessler is not entirely unsympathetic to the liberal concern about the centrists. He argues that after the backlash against Bill Clinton's chaotic first two years propelled Republicans to control of Congress in 1994, moderates excessively narrowed their sights. "What happened in our view was to be moderate became to be small in your thinking," he says. "I think from 1994 through 2004 the moderate wing of the party was wandering and was not really about big things." He believes "a new generation of progressive moderates" like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) or Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala) is more open to big ideas, but he says he understands why the party's liberal wing remains to be convinced. "The new center of the progressive movement, they have some proving to do," Kessler says. "I think they are up to it, but they have to prove that they want to pass a large agenda."

Hickey is making some conciliatory noises too. He says the "treacherous opposition" accusation against centrist Democrats "was an effective gimmick to get the attention of the media," but that his group has "backed off that confrontational rhetoric" because it recognizes that many "blue dogs are very worried about the economy...and are supporting the president." By Thursday, the Campaign for America's Future web site had dropped the prominent references to the "Dog the Blue Dogs" campaign-though the group is still complaining about "conservaDems...pushing to cut back needed investments, often to protect....entrenched corporate interests."

The Democratic divisions haven't yet approached the magnitude of the splits between liberals and centrists that contributed to the 1994 debacle. Congressional Democrats have actually held together on early votes under Obama better than they did under Bill Clinton. And Obama, for all the carping from prominent liberal voices about his financial stabilization plan, remains wildly popular across the party (Pew recently placed his approval rating at 93% among liberal Democrats and 86% among moderate and conservative Democrats). Yet it's easy to see how Democrats could reprise some of their Clinton-era troubles if liberals operate with unrealistic expectations about their ability to control the party agenda, or moderates refuse to recognize their common interest with the Left in passing an ambitious program Democrats can take to the voters in 2010. Kessler asks the right question: "Is this going to be two years of a brief what might have been [for Democrats] or the beginning of a long progressive era? I think the way the liberals and the centrists in the party relate to each other is going to go a long way in determining the answer."