September 9, 2009
The struggle to pass health care reform has everything to do with the creation of a new Democratic party that can exercise power on a national basis. It has almost nothing to do with the Republicans, who are essentially irrelevant to the policy debate. Democrats are a work in progress, and they are experiencing severe growing pains. It’s turning out that the 2008 election was the beginning, rather than the end, of this process.
Why did the Israelites wander in the Sinai desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land? Perhaps it was to learn how to leave the dependent status of slavery behind, to learn courage and faith, and to enter Canaan as a disciplined, free people.
It has been 40 years since Richard Nixon ended the long run of Democratic power that began with Franklin Roosevelt, ushering in an era of conservative dominance. Through that time, the Democrats struggled to survive and preserve their liberal values, along the way learning to think of themselves as unpopular and as a party hanging on by its collective fingernails. Sometimes Democrats must have felt as if they were wandering in the desert.
At the national level, Democrats tried to blur the ideological differences between themselves and conservatives. They held onto many seats in Congress by virtue of incumbency and special-interest money. These were not leadership strategies; these were the tactics of survival, what James C. Scott, in a political study of peasants, called “weapons of the weak.”
Bill Clinton was the master of this strategy. While he failed to win health care reform, and lost control of Congress, and then governed as a besieged Democrat perpetually under attack, he nevertheless won re-election, survived scandal and finished his term as a highly successful president. Clinton was an expert at ideological ambiguity, posting up just an inch to the left of the Republicans — and at times to the right of them — while slipping through a few progressive reforms. He collected vast sums of “soft money,” large donations from wealthy supporters. His machine depended little on mass organization, and the Democrats became devoted to the pre-election weekend mobilization, with robocalls and indifferent results. One of Clinton’s favorite tactics was to pick a fight with liberals to show that he was not all that liberal. And yet he had almost no base outside the blue Democratic states, and the Democratic presidential strategy required squeezing out a narrow victory with “just one more state.” His real base was the very left he liked to use as a foil.
The Clinton machine, with its ability to survive under Republican dominance, is the only winning model many Democrats in Washington have ever experienced, just as the Israelites only knew their lives in Egypt. In 2008, however, the Barack Obama campaign stunned the Clinton machine (now operated by Hillary) with a new model, built on grass-roots organization, the enthusiasm of black voters and younger liberals, small donations, new technology and Democrats in red states. The 2008 nomination struggle was dramatic and energizing. Obama won by piling up huge delegate leads in red states ignored by the Clinton campaign and by raising colossal sums of money from small donors. And then he won the presidency — a black man making history on the back of a colossal voter turnout and massive support from a new multiethnic generation.
The voting results were astonishing, the biggest Democratic electoral victory since 1964. End of story? No, only the beginning.
After a great start, the popular Obama took on the big one: health care. And here the people became bogged down in the desert. The problem is not the Republicans, whose policy prescriptions on health care command very little public support and whose actions in recent months have ranged from the bizarre to the borderline violent. The problem is that the historically fractious Democrats have not yet become a confident, united governing party. Obama’s top staff person in the White House, Rahm Emanuel, is an old Clinton hand who would love to pick a Clintonesque fight with the left. Nobody inside the administration supporting the Obama model is equal to Emanuel’s stature, except Obama himself, and the president has sent mixed messages to his base since his election.
Henry Waxman and other liberals in the House are strenuously arguing for a progressive approach. Obama, for his part, wants a health care plan that will unite Democrats and not so outrage the health industry that they mobilize against the plan and against the Democrats. Red state Democrats in Congress, who depend on these contributions, are scared of an industry backlash.
Obama, seeking to build on his wedge into formerly red states, has been solicitous of the views of moderate and conservative Democrats, to the point of setting off a revolt among liberals, who are resisting the threat of “triangulation” by another Democratic White House. In an irony reminiscent of Clinton, a Democratic president who reaches across the ideological divide ends up with diminished, not expanded electoral support from Republicans and independents, and a less energized base, the worst of both worlds. New Democratic president, same old lesson. Obama’s style has been to let the other side take its best shot and then push back. Clearly that moment has arrived.
Ironically, a unified Democratic party that passes popular programs that matter to people will win over more Independents and even Republicans than will attempts to split the difference with everybody. The lesson of the health care struggle has been that the Democratic Party must resolve the red state, blue state divide within itself to carry that out.
Oddly, the best chance the Republicans have to mount a comeback is not by stopping the plan, as they did in 1993, but by allowing the Democrats to pass and implement an unpopular plan that tries so hard to please everybody that it won’t help the average American.
The Democrats now stand on a mountaintop looking into the Promised Land, but they aren’t there yet. Instead of trying desperately to hold back the tide of conservatism, they are on the verge of passing programs that will become popular and ingrained reasons for Americans to support Democrats. After a generation of ignoring the base, the Democrats have a new one now, and with it has come all sorts of unpredictability, expectations, energy, and loyalty. This new base is not an asset to waste.
But Obama cannot only govern for his base. Those Democrats who think that President Obama can just imitate FDR and prevail against private interests must understand that corporate forces today are much stronger, better funded, more media-savvy and more frightening than they were when FDR was president. The national media is much easier for right-wingers to manipulate. For example, the wildest charges against the Obama health plan get serious attention in national media, as if they make sense. The Supreme Court’s radical right majority is now considering a case (Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) that could open a permanent floodgate for corporate money to flow into American political campaigns, ending a century of campaign finance reform. If that happens, a mass base can help counterbalance that flood, but voters alone will not be enough, and Democrats must be ready and willing to fight on that ugly playing field.
Nevertheless, right now Democrats have to decide whether to be smart, brave, or both. Smart leaders who think of clever ways to evade conflict gain admirers but have few followers. (One can note the cleverness of FDR’s evasion of the issue of racial equality, but it was by no means brave.) Brave leaders who risk conflict to reach great goals on central issues earn active followers who trust them, protect them and weaken the opposition. In politics, it is just as important to be brave as to be smart. If the Democrats, who have undoubtedly been smart during their desert wandering, can now learn to be brave as well, they will not only gain votes but the respect and indeed support of many of the special interests they seek to mollify today.
And that’s the road to the Promised Land.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.