September 21, 2003


The Fight for the Democratic Party (ROBIN TONER, September 21, 2003, NY Times)

It is an old struggle in the Democratic Party, resurfacing with each new generation of activists and strategists since the old New Deal coalition came unstuck in the 1960's. Does the party need to move to the center, muting its liberal edge on cultural issues, economics and foreign policy in order to win? Promise to roll back just part of the tax cut, for example, not the whole thing?

Or does that lead to a watery "me-tooism," too careful, too calibrated, too uncertain of what it believes to rouse voters or to make a difference if its proponents actually win office?

Let Democrats be Democrats, is the thrust of one argument. Speak to the great American middle, not to each other, is the counter. Hearts and heads at war. [...]

In the end, many liberals cling to an old dream, of finding a candidate who appeals to both the base and the majority, and rebuilding the old coalition that seemed to shatter 35 years ago, argued Michael Kazin, a political historian at Georgetown University.

"They think that Americans, in their heart of hearts, really agree with them on education, on the environment, on some kind of national health insurance," Professor Kazin said. "And they feel they're completely right about the war in Iraq."

Those liberals are quite wrong. In fact, since the aberrational, Goldwater loss (he might well have beaten JFK), it is conservatives who win on the national level when they run explicitly on ideology. Republicans lose when they run on me-tooism, because it allows the Democrats to run to the center. Meanwhile, the Democrats haven't won a presidential election with a non-incumbent candidate running as a liberal since FDR in 1932 (and even he at least pretended to some considerable conservatism).

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2003 5:24 PM

I had several friends in college (circa 1980) who gave themselves the luxury of recoiling and sneering at conservatives because they thought themselves to be more socially just and just plain nicer because they were quite liberal. They were invariably quite shocked when I claimed to be 'moral' by supporting Ronald Reagan. With two exceptions (that I know of), they are now more conservative than me, and the tipping point was almost always the issue of abortion.

Aside from the eddy currents of the difficult-case arguments, abortion presents a problem for the 'enlightened' liberal: there is an innocent victim (no matter how fine one slices the definition of viability; the fetus is unquestionably alive), because the issue involves power, it would seem that abortion should be seen more as a fascist act than as a sad but necessary one; and despite the religious basis for the main objection to abortion, one would think that a committed humanist would also object, because the act involves the removal of what is potentially human.

Maybe this comment should have gone to another post, but for most leftist Democrats to tie themselves to an issue with this many implications and contradictions means trouble over time.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 21, 2003 9:14 PM

I know it's a cliche but the strength of conservatism in general is that the movement
(nationally) can accomodate a range of beliefs
from "benevolent statism"/"radical libertarian",
"secular/religious","pro-enviro". The movement
is also a coalition of individuals rather than
groups. The radical interest groups have been
in charge of vetting democratic candidates for
decades and for this reason they fail to appeal

There are ways in which the dem's could transform
themselves to peel off the libertarians from
the Republican fold, but that probably wouldn't
be very significant.

Posted by: J.H. at September 22, 2003 9:17 AM