Democrats are increasingly divided; at the national level the strong majority of elected representatives in Congress and President Obama himself are generally associated with what Governor Dean famously called the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” These are the people who reject ex-President Bill Clinton’s argument that Democrats had to adjust to economic and political realities by reforming and trimming the Great Society government in order to preserve the health of the New Deal state within.
President Obama won the nomination in 2008 in part because Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees wanted someone more ideological, more committed to protecting and extending the old model than Hillary Clinton was.
President Obama himself is less true blue than many of his supporters wish; on education in particular, he has pushed against hard core teacher union positions a bit harder than some liked — and on national security issues like drone strikes and Osama-hunting, he has acted more like a charter member of the DLC than like a tried and true paladin of the blue core.
That’s what’s happening in Washington, where organizations like the Progressive Policy Institute have been pushed aside by a new wave of more left wing think tanks and organizations. But the flow has been in another direction in many states and cities — including President Obama’s own Chicago hometown. In some cases, the shift may have been driven by a simple change of heart. In many more, it’s about the cold logic of fiscal arithmetic. Nearly all states are forbidden from running budget deficits, and as tax bases shrink, businesses flee and bond market vigilantes saddle up, governors and mayors have realized that it isn’t about expanding the blue model anymore; it’s about conserving what you can and restructuring what you must.
The Clintonian, retreat and conserve Democrats have become almost invisible in Washington, but they increasingly dominate at the state and local level. In New York, California and Illinois, governors whatever their original intentions have had to embrace the causes of retrenchment and reform.
Relations between unions and new or at least broke Democrats in the states have been charged; Illinois, California and New York have all seen heated fights between Democratic governors and the unions who make up much of the base of the party’s organization. But in Washington, the sun shines. This week, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has decided to go all-in on endorsing Obama in the upcoming election. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the NEA is looking to recover from its loss in the Scott Walker recall fight by throwing its full weight behind the Obama campaign. As in Wisconsin, they’re framing the issue in apocalyptic terms:
“The election this year is critical to public education, and it’s also a turning point for the entire middle class in America,” [NEA President Dennis van Roekel] said to rousing applause. “The other side will outspend us, but we can’t let them outwork us,” he added.
Mr. Van Roekel elicited wild hoots and loud ovation when he obliquely referred to Mr. Romney while talking about public education’s role in promoting democracy across America.
“This country is about equal opportunity,” he said.
The Democratic Party was historically something of a pushmepullyou, the two-headed animal in the Dr.Doolittle books. It was the party of Southern segregationists and the party of northern trade unionists. With some longtime Democrats planning to avoid the convention this summer, and with others pursuing state and local policies that run contrary to the orthodoxy at the national level, we can see that Democrats are as complicated as ever.
The dominance of the left at the national level looks impressive today, but it may not last. Austerity is coming to Washington, if not immediately, then whenever interest rates on Treasury debt turn up as they surely will at some point. When that happens, even presidents and speakers of the House will have to start governing like tightwads, regardless of their dreams.
Many top Democrats today don’t like the Bill Clinton road, but the chances are that most if not all of them will have to walk that lonesome highway one of these days.