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Peter Connolly

Peter Connolly

Posted: June 18, 2010 11:06 AM

The Democrats Strange New Civil War

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Founded in 1946 by leading liberals such as J. K. Galbraith, Walter Reuther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Americans for Democratic Action ("ADA") is America's oldest liberal organization. Each year, the ADA performs the useful service of rating the "liberal" quotient of each member of Congress's voting record based on "key" votes. Such surveys can be questioned as a measure of a politician's commitment or effectiveness but are a reasonable indicator of his or her ideological stance on most issues which actually come before Congress. For example, for 2009, Barney Frank got a 100 percent score for his House votes while Eric Cantor received a zero score, about what one would expect.

It will also surprise no one to learn that Representative John Boozman (R-AR), this year's Arkansas Republican Senate nominee, also received a zero grade from the ADA for his 2009 House votes. But, in light of recent events, it is disconcerting to learn that Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) got a 95 percent score for her 2009 Senate voting record, one short of perfect. She voted for the stimulus bill, and with the Administration on every key health care vote and on every other vote viewed as important by the ADA, except for the Durbin mortgage "cramdown" amendment, which deprived her of 100 percent.

However, given the facts that: (a) she represents a southern state carried by John McCain with 60 percent of the vote in 2008; and (b) she is up for reelection in 2010, one would have thought that her voting record would have been considered laudable by liberals across the country, and that they would have rallied to support her reelection campaign against a formidable challenge, in what is shaping up to be a very tough year for Democrats nationwide. It will be an especially difficult year in Arkansas, where two incumbent Democratic House members, Marion Berry and Vic Snyder, are retiring in the face of adverse polls. But if you thought that, you would be very wrong.

In fact, Senator Lincoln was on the receiving end of a serious 2010 primary challenge from the left by Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, who was backed by such key progressive players as the Service Employees International Union ("SEIU"), and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ("AFSCME"), and such luminaries of the left blogosphere as Markos Moulitsas ("Daily Kos") and Jane Hamsher ("Firedog Lake") as well as left libertarian columnist Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com. Halter's effort fell short, 52-48 percent. But, speaking for that new coalition of labor activists and the netroots, known as "Accountability Now," which had led the pro-Halter effort, Greenwald pronounced Lincoln's Senate record to be "awful" and denounced her as a corrupt "corporatist."

In a June 10 column, he explained that his "purpose" had been to "remove her from the Senate, or failing that at least to impose a meaningful cost on her past behavior," such as her failure to support a health care "public option" and union backed card check legislation. But why did Lincoln's "behavior" warrant a challenge this year when neither she nor any other similarly situated southern Democrat would have been subject to one in the past? What may be happening is a break with a tacit understanding which has governed Democratic Party politics for the past forty years. This new departure is worthy of more discussion than it has received.

That understanding, to be explained below, has its roots in the Democratic Party's Great Trauma of the 1960's. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won 44 states (all except AL, LA, GA, MS, SC and AZ) and 61% of the popular vote. It was the high water mark of 20th Century liberalism. In 1965, the Democrats held 68 Senate seats and 295 House seats and proceeded to enact a plethora of laws, including the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to higher education, and immigration reform, which liberals regard as among the greatest modern achievements of the United States government. However, by 1966, things had begun to go sour for the Great Society, with Republicans gaining 47 House seats and 3 Senate seats in the election that fall. Despite the Democrats' continuing majorities of 247-187 and 64-36 in the House and Senate, the Republican/Dixiecrat coalition was back in control by 1967 and the Johnson's Administration's domestic initiatives were essentially over. By 1968, a genuine political transition was underway. The presidential election of that year is usually remembered for its background of an escalating war in Vietnam, assassinations, cultural conflict on generational lines, and racial violence, as well as for the closeness of its outcome. But one striking aspect of it in retrospect is the clear shift in voter allegiances since 1964 which it reflected. The winner, Richard Nixon, received 43.4% of the vote, while the runner-up, Hubert Humphrey pulled 42.7%, which made the election seem very close at the time. However, George Wallace, running on an overtly racist third party ticket, won a staggering 13.5% of the vote, carrying five deep southern states, including Arkansas. Right wing candidates thus won 57% of the total vote.

By 1972, the shift was complete. President Nixon managed to incorporate Wallace's 1968 vote and add more besides, winning 60.7 percent of the total vote against George McGovern. Thus, in eight years, fully one-third of President Johnson's 1964 majority had been sheared away, losses concentrated among socially conservative white voters in the upper south and in suburbs all over the country.

This huge alteration in voting patterns created the context of modern American politics, making the once endangered Republican party the default preference in US presidential elections. Between 1968 and 2004, the Republicans won 7 out of 10 presidential elections, with their majorities always based on the same coalition which Nixon first assembled.

The Democrats continued to do better in Congressional elections, in part owing to the ability of what Alan Ehrenhalt called Democratic "political entrepreneurs," i.e. politicians skilled at survival in inhospitable electoral environments, such as Tom Daschle and Fritz Hollings. But here too the trend lines were clear, with the Republicans controlling the Senate from 1980 to 1986, 1994 to 2001, and from 2002 to 2006, and the House from 1994 to 2006.

However, despite or perhaps because of these losses, Democrats came to understand, that there was a formula for occasional victories at the presidential level, which was essentially the same as the formula for Democrats winning southern Senate races. To win, the Democrats had to nominate a moderate centrist candidate, liberal enough to hold their liberal/labor/African American base (which exhibited great forbearance and political maturity), but not so left wing that he could plausibly be labeled a Liberal, i.e. someone associated with the least popular legacies of the sixties. Such centrist candidates would be able to capture enough moderate and independent votes to win elections. Aided by other factors, this is the formula which worked for Jimmy Carter (1976 version), and Bill Clinton. It would have worked for Al Gore in 2000 as well, but for the Palm Beach County ballot, Ralph Nader's third party candidacy, and a partisan Supreme Court. But when the Democrats ran more forthright liberals from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, e.g. McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis and Kerry, they always went down to defeat.

Of course, there was another election, in 2008, which appeared to shatter this political mold. Barack Obama, an unabashed liberal from Chicago by way of Hawaii and New York, and an African American besides, won an astonishing 52.7% of the vote, carrying such improbable states as Indiana and Virginia. It is this victory, in which young and minority voters played a newly prominent role, which has evidently created such high expectations in the world of left liberalism that a Blanche Lincoln has somehow become unacceptable.

But did the election of 2008 actually mark a shift comparable to 1968? The 2009 Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial election results and the 2010 Massachusetts Senate election shocker would indicate that the answer is "no." It is probable that the 2008 result had more to do with transient factors such as McCain's age, Sarah Palin's lack of qualifications, the financial crisis, and weariness with the Bush administration's wars and perceived incompetence, than with any kind of permanent ideological shift, at least among the type of independent voters who swung for Obama, and then voted for Republicans Robert McDonnell, Chris Christie, and Scott Brown in 2009 and 2010.

If that is the case, then the kind of primary challenge aimed at Lincoln or the third party candidacy now allegedly being contemplated to challenge Representative Larry Kissell (D-NC), are a formula for certain Democratic defeat in general elections. Unless people are motivated by a kind of nihilistic desire to punish, such primary or third party campaigns have to be based on a reasonable belief that southern states and the United States will, in normal electoral circumstances, elect people to the left of Blanche Lincoln or for the matter, Barack Obama, also now a frequent target of "progressive" criticism. As was shown in his fierce and effective campaigning for Senator Lincoln, no less an expert on southern (and American) politics than Bill Clinton obviously considers such a belief to be profoundly mistaken. I agree with Clinton, but the Democratic Party's future may depend in part on what netroot and other liberal activists believe regarding this suddenly important question. Either the Blanche Lincolns and Larry Kissells of the world will face tough primary and/or third party challenges or they will not. To paraphrase another Lincoln, Abraham, in his First Inaugural, in the hands of those activists now rests the momentous question of party civil war.