Sunday, November 13, 2005

The New Wedge Politics

Howard Fineman of Newsweek wrote a column last week about how Democrats were adopting a wedge strategy, pitting officials in the administration against one another in the aftermath of the Scooter Libby indictments.

Today, Alan Ehrenhalt, the executive editor of Governing magazine, has an NYT op-ed suggesting that the new Republican majority, much like its Democratic predecessor, is standing precariously on some critical fault lines, which last week's elections in California, New Jersey, and Virginia have partially exposed:

ONE thing we used to know for sure about the two political parties was that only one was really a party. That was the Republicans. They were a distinct minority in the country, but they did have a certain cohesion and a more or less consistent view of the world, built on a faith in limited government.

Democrats didn't have anything like that. They were a big, sloppy bundle of contradictions, a coalition of convenience in which Mississippi segregationists and Manhattan socialists pretended to have something in common. The only thing keeping them together was a desire to win elections and head Congressional committees. Sooner or later the sheer absurdity of it had to sink them, and it did.

Now we are entering a political era defined by a similar contradiction, except that the roles are reversed. Democrats are the minority party, but one that, for better or worse, consists of people and interests with a similar political and cultural language. Any differences in strategy and policy choice are essentially at the margins. On the issues that Democrats care about most these days - abortion, the role of religion, the war in Iraq - there aren't that many dissenters. The dissenters have left.

Republicans, meanwhile, have built a sprawling, wobbly tent in which libertarians, Christian moralists and suburban business owners all pretend to have similar goals. But as it was for the Democratic Party of 30 years ago, that tent is too flimsily constructed to stay up forever.
This month's election results don't suggest when its collapse will occur, but they offer a few clues to how it might happen.

Exhibit A is Virginia, where the Democratic governor-elect, Timothy M. Kaine, tore through the fragile Republican constituencies, winning almost every populous suburban county, even the conservative exurbs outside Washington and Richmond, and leaving his Republican opponent stuck with a rump coalition of rural diehards, Christian activists and anti-tax militants that lost by more than 100,000 votes.

Exhibit B is California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, tried to rally the majority that elected him in 2003, only to find that it no longer existed. Virginia was a Republican defeat; California was a humiliation. All four of Mr. Schwarzenegger's favored ballot measures, labeled as a package that would reform California politics, failed by substantial margins, driven to defeat not so much by the governor's tactical ineptitude as by his inability to construct a viable coalition of interests that cared about enacting it as much as the opponents, led by public employees, cared about defeating it.

But perhaps the most striking exhibit is Colorado, which passed Referendum C, a ballot proposition that suspends one of the Republican anti-tax movement's proudest national achievements: the 1992 state constitutional amendment forcing Colorado to return budget surpluses to the voters regardless of the fiscal climate or any perceived need for public investment.

Referendum C is the product of an alliance between the state's Republican governor (long a supporter of the amendment) and the Democratic House speaker. That partnership brought together organized education, Chambers of Commerce, suburban mayors, real estate developers and conventional labor Democrats, all of whom believed that the state couldn't meet its education and transportation needs while systematically emptying its treasury every year.

Left on the other side were a Christian right that didn't particularly care about the issue, some urban blue-collar populists and an anti-tax militia that lacked sufficient strength to be competitive.

Perhaps no one looked sillier in the aftermath of the Colorado vote than Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, who barnstormed against Referendum C and declared after the vote that Gov. Bill Owens, the referendum's chief supporter, had forfeited his future in national politics. Mr. Owens responded that he didn't want a career in national politics.

Indeed, it is Mr. Norquist's informal political alliance, what he calls the "Leave Us Alone" coalition, that points up the most serious rents in the 21st-century Republican fabric. Over the past decade, the coalition has grown from its original libertarian base to include Christian Right activists whose agenda of moral regulation represents a flat rejection of libertarian values. It is the modern-day equivalent of Bella Abzug, the New York feminist, and James Eastland, the Mississippi segregationist, attending Democratic conventions together in the 1960's. It is too ridiculous to last, and it won't.

The potential for schism in the unwieldy Republican ranks is nothing new; it goes back to the debate between libertarians and Christian moralists that played out in the National Review in the 1950's. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won a presidential election as head of a movement that improbably fused together disciples of Jerry Falwell and disciples of Milton Friedman. But all the factions could agree on the need for a tough stand against Communism, no matter what their differences might be over abortion or federal spending.

The danger to Republicans of life without an evil empire became clear in 1992, the first post-cold-war presidential election. In that contest, the dominant role of social-issue conservatives - especially at the national convention in Houston - led to the defeat of George H. W. Bush and the election of Bill Clinton as president.

Mr. Clinton made his mistakes, but he never failed to understand that the Republican alliance was tenuous and easily sundered, which is why he won two terms and would have won a third. Al Gore, utterly inept at exploiting the same vulnerabilities, still managed to outpoll George W. Bush by more than 500,000 in the popular vote in 2000.

What Republicans desperately needed after Mr. Clinton was an international enemy threatening enough to replace the Soviets, and by a remarkable turn of events, they soon had one. The terrorist attacks of 2001 not only unified the country for a brief time; they also gave the Bush administration a grace period of more than three years in which anti-terrorist rallying cries were sufficiently compelling to paper over factional and ideological differences that the party ultimately would have to confront.

The grace period has ended. The results in Virginia, California and Colorado are the first serious warning to Republicans that they now must deal with political life largely as it existed on Sept. 10, 2001, and for nearly a decade before that. They are a hyper-extended family whose members are starting to realize that they have very little to say to each other. The internecine arguments over the year's Supreme Court nominees and last week's House budget bickering only serve to underscore the discomfort.

None of this means that the Democratic Party will return to majority status any time soon. What it does suggest is that running against Republicans, in much of the country, is no longer the political equivalent of rocket science. It requires candidates who can find the torn places in the tent and then push through them. Bill Clinton knew how to do that; incumbent governor Mark Warner and his successor Tim Kaine learned how to do it in Virginia. John Kerry never quite figured it out and didn't become president.

It remains to be seen whether the next Democratic applicant for the job will grasp the opportunity. But it is there for the taking.

There's much that can be said about this column, but the important thing is the suggestion, or at least implication, that future Democratic prospects will probably have more to do with how well the party can drive wedges in the Republican coalition, and that will depend in large part, on the sectional politics of particular regions, and the specifics and timing of local conditions. In other words, progressives dreaming of a comprehensive, ideological strategy to take back the country, are probably going to have to learn to be content with simply fracturing the Republican base(s). It may not be sexy, but it will probably have to do.

The old Democratic New Deal majority was based primarily on three crucial elements that are largely no longer operative: the solid south; labor unions; and urban political machines.

The solid south is not only gone, it has completely flipped sides. At the national level, labor unions are basically dead, although they may exert some influence at the state and local level from time to time (see California). And the mythical urban machine is defunct, although cities continue to provide a large plurality, if not majority, of the party's votes.

With the old Democratic majority dead and buried, progressives will need to consider new strategies to exploit the current regime's weaknesses and contradictions.

Although I'm not as sanguine as Ehrenhalt that the schism between economic libertarians and moral regulationists is as severe as it should seem on its face, it should be evident that the radical conservative view of government and society is unsustainable. Government can't be starved if it is to be even modestly viable for conservative aims. And the authoritarian ideals of the religious right are inconsistent, even hostile to the most basic values of pluralism, democracy, and popular sovereignty.

1 comment:

bayoustjohndavid said...

Hard to be too sanguine about the Republican coalition fracturing on its own. Democrats have been waiting for an economic/social conservative schism since thr Reagan administration. After twenty years of waiting for split, it's about time the Democrats realize it will take an outside push.