The Battle Within the Democratic Party

A schism between moderates and liberals over economic inequality is the first front in defining a post-Obama platform.

Mike Theiler/Reuters

Things are not going well for Democrats. Riding high just weeks ago after Republicans shut down the government, the party now finds itself in a swoon: President Obama’s ratings have hit an all-time low. The implementation of healthcare reform remains a mess. Vulnerable Democrats are scrambling to distance themselves from the White House, and the party is on track to lose seats in the House and Senate next year.

Parties in distress tend to fall to bickering, and today’s Democrats are no exception. On one side, liberals calling for a muscular agenda of government expansion and progressive taxation; on the other, centrists who believe restraint is necessary in both policy and politics. Progressives have been emboldened by liberal victories like that of the new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio. Centrists fear that liberals will drive the party out of the American mainstream with their talk of income redistribution and political correctness.

In the post-Obama era and without an incumbent on the ticket, “Where does the party go?” Jon Cowan, president of the centrist think tank Third Way, asked me. “I think that is going to be an incredibly heated debate.”

No one is saying Democrats are tipping into the kind of civil war that has riven the GOP. But the split is likely to worsen as the party confronts its future, complicating Democratic prospects in the 2014 midterm elections and coming to the fore in the 2016 primaries.

“When we focus on economic mobility, that’s a conversation that unites us,” Jack Markell, the popular two-term Delaware governor and a self-styled centrist, told me. “If it’s about inequality, it’s a conversation that has the potential of dividing us.” Markell says that middle-class voters hear in the crusade against “inequality” a desire to equalize people rather than make everyone better off.

In de Blasio’s resounding win and the burgeoning celebrity of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, many have seen a new flowering of liberalism. Peter Beinart, writing in The Daily Beast in September, argued that the Millennial generation, accustomed to diversity and fired by a sense of economic injustice, is pushing the electorate leftward. The New York Times and The New Republic have both portrayed Warren, with her calls for expanding entitlements and cracking down on Wall Street, as a counterpoint to the cautious centrism of Hillary Clinton.

Stan Greenberg, a longtime Democratic pollster who advised de Blasio’s campaign, insists that most Democrats, including Obama, are on the same page as Warren. In both presidential elections, he noted, “Obama ran on a future for the middle class of restoring prosperity, raising taxes on the wealthy, and an investment agenda. That’s the mainstream of the Democratic Party; it’s the mainstream of the country.”

But the trumpeting of a new progressive era triggers traumatic flashbacks for the Democratic warriors of a previous generation. They remember the party’s many years of nominating liberal candidates like Walter Mondale—and losing badly. So the centrists recently fired back. In a December 2 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Cowan and another Third Way official argued that “populism” was a dead end for Democrats. They urged the party to demonstrate fiscal responsibility by embracing entitlement reform.

“There is a very large faction within the Democratic Party that wants to go back in time,” Cowan told me. “They want to take what we did in the 20th century and do more of it. They want to re-unionize the entire country, unwind the trade deals of the last couple of decades, and not just preserve but expand entitlements. Even if we could afford that, it wouldn’t solve most of the problems of the middle class.”

The backlash to the Cowan op-ed was swift and forceful. The next day, Warren wrote a letter to several banks asking them to disclose their donations to think tanks that was widely seen as a swipe at Third Way, though it didn’t mention the group explicitly. Progressives called on Democratic officeholders to repudiate the op-ed, which many did, and to cut their ties to Third Way, which most did not. The liberal group released a television ad responding to Third Way’s criticism and pointedly aired it only in the Washington, D.C., market. “Third Way and many of the Beltway insiders it works to influence are simply out of touch with the American public on Social Security,” MoveOn’s Ilya Sheyman said.

Progressive groups would like to play the role in the Democratic Party that the Tea Party plays in the GOP, forcing elected officials to stake out less moderate positions in order to win party primaries. But when groups like MoveOn and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have campaigned in the past decade for liberal candidates and against moderates in contested party primaries, they have mostly lost. In the most high-profile recent example of a centrist Democrat challenged from the left, unions tried and failed to oust moderate Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, who, damaged by the bruising and expensive primary, went on to lose the general election to a Republican.

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.