A recent interesting debate over “entitlement reform” (a phrase for which scare quotes are always appropriate) reprised a long-running feud between liberals and centrists over the soul of the Democratic Party. Arguing [www.thedemocraticstrategist.org/strategist/2013/07/memo_from_third_way_the_four_f.php] for “entitlement reform” are the Third Way, a successor of sorts to the defunct Democratic Leadership Council. The centrists, who often like to call themselves New Democrats, have always aimed to make the Democratic Party one way or another look more like moderate Republicans. They tend to get favorable reviews from mass media commentators, whose obsession with non-partisan “balance” makes them love centrists of all stripes. They also get a good deal of financing from business groups who would be happy to support moderate Republicans if they existed. But an important weapon in their ideological arsenal is their ability to draw on the myth of centrist success: the notion that Democrats succeed when they campaign and govern from the center.
The myth of centrist success dates back to Bill Clinton’s election as president. The mythical narrative goes basically like this: ever since the Vietnam War and the McGovern disaster of 1972, the Democrats had been steadily becoming too liberal and therefore out of touch with ordinary American voters. The liberal excesses were closely linked to the party’s identification with a variety of “special interests”: blacks, organized labor, and feminists, among others (but really, first and foremost, blacks). The party’s problems were accurately diagnosed by the Democratic Leadership Council, whose leader, Bill Clinton, effectively used the DLC’s diagnosis to find cures for the party’s ills. Clinton succeeded in recapturing the allegiance of a sufficient chunk of middle America to win election and re-election. He did so by emphasizing themes that the Democrats had long since neglected--personal responsibility, toughness on crime and national security, and an appreciation of the advantages of markets over government action.
A big problem with this narrative is that it rests entirely on one very contingent event: Clinton’s election as president. (His re-election can more or less be folded into the same event--presidents usually get re-elected, Carter and Bush I notwithstanding.) Suppose we entertain a counterfactual scenario. Suppose that that quintessential “old Democrat,” Mario Cuomo, had entered the field of presidential candidates in 1992. There is a good chance that Cuomo would have triumphed over Clinton in the primaries and then, for the same reasons Clinton beat Bush (“the economy, stupid”), gone on to the White House. In that case, the New Democrat narrative would be exactly nowhere today. The DLC’s diagnosis of the Dems’ problems would have gone down the memory hole, along with the whole mythology of success through centrism.
“Aha!” you say: but facts are more powerful than counterfactuals, and the fact is that Clinton did get elected and re-elected to the presidency, after three successive Democratic failures. Fair enough. But let’s consider some facts that the New Democrats and their admirers tend to gloss over. One fact is that there had already been a New Democrat in the White House. His name was Jimmy Carter, often regarded as the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. Jimmy Carter’s centrism didn’t work out so well, which is undoubtedly why his name is almost invariably missing from the New Democrats’ narrative. The New Democrats also can’t easily account for the election of 2000, in which irreproachably centrist Al Gore, one of the very early favorites of the New Dems, barely managed to fight George W. Bush to a draw despite a booming economy that should have favored the incumbent party. (Gore was actually behind in the polls until he he abandoned New Democrat orthodoxy and adopted a more populist stance in the closing weeks of the campaign.)
Did the New Democrats’ work finally bear fruit again in 2008, when the Democrats again re-took the White House? We can answer that question with another question: was the Democratic Party that won with the glamorous centrist liberal, Barack Obama, really that different from the Democratic Party that lost with the dull centrist liberal, Michael Dukakis, 20 years earlier? The electoral coalition was pretty much the same in both years: all the old “special interests” that had lined up behind Dukakis--minorities, women, labor, etc.-- were there for Obama. What changed was the demography, which now favored the Dems, and the circumstances. (There’s nothing like a catclysmic financial crisis to make the incumbent party look bad.) Obama, like Dukakis, lost the white working class.
That’s not to say that Bill Clinton didn’t make some significant changes in Democratic Party politics: he changed the mix of “special interests” in the Democrats’ corner. Organized labor was off-sided while the party’s longstanding alliance with important sectors of Wall Street and international business was solidified and deepened. This achievement--if you want to call it that--opened spigots for Democrats’ campaign financing. In policy terms, Clinton’s achievement was reflected in his administration’s strong support for financial de-regulation and free trade. And that legacy has persisted: witness the banker-friendly economic team that Obama (Wall Street’s favored candidate in 2008) brought into office with him, and the administration’s continued push for free trade agreements. The Democrats’ centrist legacy is also reflected in Obama’s repeatedly expressed willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare in the search for a grand bargain with the Republicans.
But no one can argue that either financial de-regulation or free trade or “entitlement reform” have been popular issues for the Democrats; quite the contrary. More plausible is the argument that a populist Democratic Party that is tough on Wall Street, appropriately skeptical of free trade and stalwart in defense of the safety net would have better chances of recouping the support of working and lower middle class Americans who have concluded that both parties are beholden, more or less, to corporate interests.