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The Case for a Smaller Tent Party

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My op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, "Boot the Blue Dogs," which draws on the extensive reporting I did for my new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, has sparked quite a debate online (and in my inbox). The excellent progressive bloggers Digby and Howie Klein quoted it approvingly, while The Guardian's Michael Tomasky and Washington Post blogger/columnist Ezra Klein disagree with my argument that Democrats would be better off with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority. Today the New York Times reports that the centrist Democratic group Third Way is out with a new memo that accuses me of wanting to "purge" all "moderates" from the party.

I never argued such a thing in the op-ed, nor do I believe that! My book is all about how Democrats broadened their political coalition and won in unlikely states like Indiana, North Carolina and Colorado in 2006 and 2008. But it's also true that such a big-tent strategy had unintended consequences and has led to significant intraparty strife and legislative stalemate. That's why many of the activists who were so inspired by Howard Dean and Barack Obama, who I profile in the book, are experiencing some buyer's remorse in 2010.

I'm not advocating that the Democratic Party purge every conservative Democrat from its ranks, but I do think the party would be better off letting its most reactionary elements go. They bring the party nothing in terms of legislative votes and only seek to undermine the broader Democratic message and brand, which is exactly what the handful of Democrats who are publicly distancing themselves from Nancy Pelosi are doing. It's pretty confounding that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending $1.5 million on TV ads supporting Alabama Congressman Bobby Bright, who voted against the stimulus package, healthcare reform and energy bill. That is a totally counterproductive political and electoral strategy. Why not spend that money on behalf of a Democrat who's supported Obama's agenda and is locked in a tough race?

Secondly, I wrote the op-ed to bring attention to the increasingly dysfunctional nature of the US Senate. As I wrote on Sunday:

Having a majority of 52 rather than 59 or 60 would force Democrats to confront the Republicans' incessant misuse of the filibuster to require that any piece of legislation garner a minimum of 60 votes to become law. Since President Obama's election, more than 420 bills have cleared the House but have sat dormant in the Senate. It's easy to forget that George W. Bush passed his controversial 2003 tax cut legislation with only 50 votes, plus Vice President Dick Cheney's. Eternal gridlock is not inevitable unless Democrats allow it to be.

Republicans never controlled more than fifty-five seats during the Reagan or Bush II presidencies and yet were able to get a number of sweeping pieces of conservative legislation passed. They in fact did quite a lot with a relatively small tent, especially during the Bush years. But Democrats have allowed Republicans or a few renegade Democrats to water down or thwart nearly every progressive piece of legislative proposed in the Senate. This power imbalance must be addressed by the party post-November if it stands any chance of advancing the remaining parts of its legislative agenda. Obama expressed his frustration with the frequency of GOP filibusters in his interview with Jon Stewart last night, but thus far Democratic leaders have not yet unveiled a plan to change the Senate rules or pass more items through the reconciliation or recess process.

After the election, groups like Third Way will no doubt argue that Obama should move to the center and work with Republicans to forge a moderate consensus on issues like tax cuts, the deficit, free trade and education reform. But I'm skeptical that a Clintonian strategy of triangulation will work with a Tea Party-infused Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already outlined his top priority for the new Congress: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." So much for bipartisan cooperation! Democrats who consistently undermine Obama are only helping McConnell achieve his aims.

It's now painfully obvious that President Obama's election, far from hastening a post-partisan utopia, has led to near-absolute polarization. To deal with a re-energized right, Democrats must alter their political strategy accordingly. Moderates, independents and liberals want the same thing from this president: an economy that puts people back to work and an end to gridlock in Washington. The big-tent strategy did neither, so maybe it's time to try something new.