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Battle Royale: Center-Right Versus Center-Left In the Democratic Party

First Posted: 11-29-08 08:55 AM   |   Updated: 12-30-08 05:12 AM

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Battle Royale

As President-elect Obama prepares to take office, Democratic partisans are battling over a crucial issue: is the United States a "center-right" or "center-left" nation? If the country is in fact tilted to the right, then Obama risks reviving Republican prospects should his legislative initiatives be perceived as too liberal. Conversely, if the U.S is a center-left nation, the adoption of major public works programs, comprehensive health care, and aggressive tax and spending programs to reduce income- and wealth-inequality may help forge a durable majority for Obama and the Democratic Party.

Both sides have evidence to back up their case.

Advocates of the center-right thesis point to the way voters identify themselves, with the percentage saying that they are conservative - about 36-37% on average -- substantially larger than the 18-19% who say they are liberal. The following Pew Center chart graphs http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1042/winds-of-political-change-havent--shifted-publics-ideology-balance these trends over the past five presidential elections:

This argument is crucial to Republicans seeking to rebuild a severely weakened, ideologically conservative party. Michigan GOP chair Saulius "Saul" Anuzis, who is running to become Chairman of the Republican National Committee, flatly declares, "We are clearly a center right country," arguing that the GOP's defeats in 2006 and this year result not from a rejection of conservatism, but from the fact that "the Republican brand had gotten so bad and none of our politicians had the credibility to offer any 'change' message." Similarly, South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune, who is seeking to move up in the Senate leadership, contends, "We're still a center-right country....Democrats won those voters in the middle who ought to be part of our coalition."

The debate is, however, both more salient and more intense on the Democratic side of the aisle because, for the first time since November 1994, the party is in office and empowered to make policy. The center-right vs. center-left conflict is now a dispute over the range of politically tenable policy options open to Democrats -- whether party leaders are significantly constrained by a pull to the right, or whether Obama and Congressional Democrats are free to enact aggressively progressive programs and legislation.

One of the most outspoken advocates of the center-right view is Douglas Schoen, former partner of Hillary Clinton's senior political adviser Mark Penn. Writing in the New York Daily News, Schoen argues,"There is little appetite for a supersized Democratic agenda....Democrats must resist the temptation to take on symbolic issues that appeal to the left and divide the country. The failure of pro-gay marriage initiatives around the country should give pause to similar initiatives on the federal level, and the mixed results on affirmative action suggest how important it is for Obama to initiate social change on a class basis, rather than a racial basis."

In another article in the Financial Times, Schoen contends that President Clinton's first two years in office constitute "a clear warning that a centre-left coalition can fall apart quickly if the policies are seen as too far left. In 1993, Mr. Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy, adopted the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy in the military, proposed and lost universal healthcare and adopted gun safety measures, banning assault rifles. In just two years his ratings plummeted to 35 per cent favorable and 65 per cent said they would never vote for him again. The mid-term elections brought a stunning loss of both Houses and the emergence of Newt Gingrich's Contract for America."

Schoen and his ideological allies have infuriated many in the progressive wing of the party. Schoen's adversaries argue, with their own polling data to back up their case, that there may be many more self-described American conservatives than liberals, but, when it comes to actual policies, the country is pretty liberal.

The Campaign for America's Future (CAF) has created a blog, "Center-Right Nation Watch," to counter those arguing that the country tilts to the right. The organization has also conducted its own analysis of poll data in a paper titled "The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America Is a Myth."

CAF co-director Robert Borosage, argues that a survey jointly conducted by his organization and Democracy Corps shows: "On issue after issue, moderates stand with liberals, not conservatives. This is a center-left nation. Republicans are not only an aging, monochromatic, regional minority party. They not only must now suffer the circular firing squad that follows defeat. They not only struggle to find a compelling leader or a relevant agenda. They swim against the tide. They are a largely conservative party in a center-left nation. Obama's mandate is clear. And they'd be well advised to get out of the way."

A close examination of the data suggests that the political and policy-making environment is more complex than either side acknowledges, and that thinking in terms of a left-right dichotomy may distort policy options.

First, looking at the history of ideological self-identification, the evidence is compelling that the decline of liberal self-identifiers correlated with the emergence of race as the dominant issue in the period from 1964 to 1968 -- an early reaction to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Great Society programs directing resources toward disproportionately minority populations, and the urban riots -- including Harlem in 1964, Los Angeles' Watts in 1965, and Detroit in 1967.

Data collected by James Stimson, a well-regarded University of North Carolina political scientist, shows the precipitous drop during this brief period in the percentage of voters willing to say they were liberals.


While some have suggested that opposition to the Vietnam War provoked the decline in liberal identifiers, the decline reached its nadir in 1967, before the anti-war movement had taken off, as this more narrowly focused chart of Stimson's shows:

While liberal identification took a hit, the "liberalism of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy" did not, according to data that Stimson provided to the Huffington Post. Support remained strong, and continues to remain strong "for programs that helped the working class of Americans....Social Security Unemployment compensation minimum wage, and so forth." The problem for the Democratic Party, according to Stimson, was that "[b]eginning with Lyndon Johnson, liberalism comes to mean support for the 'underclass.' It asks the majority of voters to sacrifice their self-interest for the good of others."

Although support for federal spending on health, education, Social Security and the environment remains strong, that does not mean proponents of these policies will not face voter opposition.

Stanley Greenberg, whose firm conducted the CAF-Democracy Corps post-election poll, writes, "On virtually every dimension of the liberal-conservatism debate, voters have moved to a new place. They show a new openness for the country to use government for a range of public purposes: restoring taxes on the wealthiest and corporations to bring sustained relief for the middle class and regulate corporate excess to protect the public."

At the same time, Greenberg warns, "voters remain cautious about government spending and taxes after eight years of bloated spending, deficits, corruption, incompetence and special-interest rule. Thus, they divide evenly on worries we won't invest enough versus we will overspend and raise taxes, and whether we should move boldly or step-by-step to achieve health care reform."

There were specific questions in the Democracy Corps survey which elicited answers suggesting that the new Democratic administration needs to be attentive to voter sentiment. Voters were asked, "Now, I am going to read you a list of words and phrases which people use to describe political figures. For each word or phrase, please tell me whether it describes Barack Obama very well, well, not too well, or not well at all." By a margin of 50-48, Democracy Corps found, a bare majority of voters described Obama as "too liberal." Asked if Obama "will raise my taxes," after he campaigned on a pledge that he would cut taxes for 95 percent of families, 47 percent said he would raise their taxes, and 52 percent said he would not.

Along similar lines, the Pew Center found that a strong majority, 57 percent, of Democratic voters want Obama to govern as a moderate, compared to 33 percent who want him to govern as a liberal. The question was not asked of independent and Republican voters, who almost certainly would have expressed a strong preference for moderate policies.

Stimson contends that although the American electorate is "symbolically" conservative it is "operationally" liberal. This does not mean, however, that symbolic conservatism has no substantive meaning in terms of voters' choices.

Throughout 2008, the Obama campaign carefully avoided or muted discussion of such volatile issues as affirmative action and redistributive 'transfer' programs for the poor, while stressing repeatedly that the overwhelming majority of people would see their taxes cut, not raised.

During the weeks immediately following his election, the fledgling Obama administration is signaling a concern with the dangers of reviving the anger and resentment which underpinned the past four decades of 'symbolic conservatism.' In the process, Obama has infuriated some of his early supporters.

Many on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party are now voicing concerns over the centrist pattern of Obama's key appointments - Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff; an economic team lead by Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Paul Volker; the expected selection of Hillary Clinton at State; Robert Gates to continue at the Pentagon; and retired Marine General Jim Jones as National Security Adviser.

The blogosphere is particularly sensitive to the potential sidelining of the left, after having provided invaluable help in putting Obama over the top. The Internet and the blogosphere were "enormously important for getting the message out, raising money and mobilizing voters. Those are the three things -- message, money and mobilization -- that the Obama team saw and executed on brilliantly," David Gergen told Rolling Stone. Democratic pollster Peter Hart noted that 2008 "is the first modern election where technology enabled supporters to play a direct role in the campaign. It's the first election where citizen media dominated the dialogue."

Thus dissent from newly empowered, progressive 'citizen journalists" and bloggers represents a potential dilemma for the Obama administration. "Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one," lamented Christopher Hayes in a column entitled "Left Out" at The Nation.

Chris Bowers at Open Left writes: "I feel incredibly frustrated. Even after two landslide elections in a row, are our only governing options as a nation either all right-wing Republicans, or a centrist mixture of Democrats and Republicans?...We are being entirely left out of Obama's major appointments so far."

Obama and his advisers appear to be acutely aware of the failure of the American progressive movement to push the direction of government in a significantly redistributive direction since the administration of Lyndon Johnson (1963-1968) forty years ago, and of the disdain in which Johnson has been widely held since -- despite Johnson's stunning progressive legislative record -- the two major Civil Rights Acts, Medicare, Medicaid, and the War on Poverty. (For more on Johnson's record see Jim Jaffe.)

For those in the administration whose personal memories do not go back to the 1960s, there are bitter recollection of how quickly popular support for Bill Clinton nosedived within months of his taking office in 1993. A New York Times/CBS News survey released just before Clinton's inauguration showed huge majorities in his camp: 70 percent said they were optimistic 'about the next four years with Bill Clinton,' 75 percent were convinced Clinton cared "about the needs and problems" of people like themselves, and a similarly lopsided majority believed Clinton was equipped to deal with the most pressing problems facing the nation.

Five months later, Clinton's popularity had imploded. A May 1993 CBS News poll found that Clinton's unfavorable rating, 49 percent, ran far ahead of his favorable rating of 37 percent. Clinton paid a huge price for his mishandling of the 'gays in the military' issue; his fumbled search for "a Cabinet that looks like America;" his failure to win approval of a $16.2 billion economic stimulus bill; the poor reception to the handling of his health care proposal; an anti-crime bill directing federal funds to midnight basketball; and his inability to get a single Republican to vote for his 1993 budget.

So far during the transition, Obama appears determined not to replicate Clinton's early problems. Instead, for every major appointment, Obama has selected an experienced, well-known figure.

If the stock market is any indicator, the reaction has been consistently favorable since Obama announced the selection of Geithner and Summers on November 24. Obama's expected pick of Gates even won a note of praise from the dyed-in-the-wool conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page: "So far on security, not bad."

While Gates and other appointments may temporarily smooth troubled waters on the right, they do not assuage the Democratic left, whose crucial role in the early stages of Obama's bid is likely to give them a hearing.

In the meantime, the President-elect is getting some surprising support from one of the most outspoken members of the Democratic Party's progressive wing, columnist-blogger David Sirota, normally first out of the box in criticizing any party members who trend right.

Describing Obama's appointments as potentially brilliant, Sirota wrote that "his initial moves suggest a president who hired ideological free-market conservatives, and who will order them to push ideologically progressive policies - all under the mantra of 'pragmatism.'....Obama - in a very pragmatic way - seems to have determined that the practical thing to do is pass progressive legislation, and that the most practical way to do that is to have that legislation carried by free-marketeers whose conservatism gets them painted by pundits as 'pragmatists'."

Sirota is not fully confident of this analysis, however, noting that Obama may be up to something very different, "an attempt to sell policies crafted by conservatives with a marketing team made up of progressives - I don't think it is, but we can't be totally sure just yet."

In fact, many of the "centrist" economic advisers Obama has chosen have, in recent years, moved to the left, developing more concern for displaced workers who bear the costs of free trade agreements; and, more importantly, demonstrating a growing commitment to lessen the trend toward greater income and wealth inequality.

Summers, once demonized by some in the left-progressive wing of the Democratic Party, has begun to call for government policies to correct the transfer he identifies as beginning in 1979 of some $664 billion, or $600,000 per family, to the top 1 percent of the income distribution, at the expense of the bottom 80 percent, whose family incomes, Summers argues, are on average $7,000 below what they would have been had income gains been distributed equally to each percentile.

While Obama and his team must thread a path between the conflicting ideals of the moderate or 'vital' center and the 'new left' - if that phrase can be revived -- nothing has the potential to give wings to the liberal/progressive alliance more than the impoverishment of the middle and working classes - a distinct possibility as the economic meltdown unfolds.