Democrats got three surprises last week.
One was that the party would not hold together behind President Obama's call for a military strike in Syria. Another was that Democrats in Colorado did not rally to the cause of gun control. The third was that New York Democrats have come up with an unexpected new spokesman for urban America.
What do the three surprises add up to? The fact that the New America coalition that President Obama brought to power is ready to set out on its own, independent of Obama.
Democratic voters joined with the rest of the country in opposing the president on Syria. In the Washington Post-ABC News poll, 64 percent of Americans opposed launching missile strikes against the Syrian government. Opposition was only slightly lower among Democrats (55 percent).
As of Tuesday, when President Obama addressed the country, fewer than one in three Democratic senators (16 out of 54) favored a military strike, according to the Washington Post whip count. Only 9 percent of House Democrats supported military action. On the Syria issue, President Obama lost his base.
After decades of antiwar resistance, opposition to military intervention has become a core value to Democrats. President Obama, who comes out of the progressive tradition, was unable to break that opposition. Even though it was clear that a "no" vote would undermine president Obama's effectiveness, most Democrats chose their progressive values over their president.
The president's base abandoned him again over the prospective nomination of Larry Summers to be the new Federal Reserve chairman. President Obama was known to favor Summers, but many Democrats in Congress announced their opposition even before Summers was officially nominated. They objected particularly to Summers' role in the deregulation of the financial industry when he was President Clinton's treasury secretary. After three Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee announced their opposition, Summers felt compelled to withdraw his name. The liberal base of the party was in open defiance of President Obama.
The Colorado recalls were a case where the Democratic base did not show up at the polls. In the 3rd Senate District, where Democratic Sen. Angela Giron was ousted, Democratic voter turnout dropped by 23,000 from the number voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to the number voting for Giron last week. The turnout decline was only 7,000 from Mitt Romney in 2012 to the recall in 2013. In the 11th district, where Democratic state senate president John Morse was recalled, turnout from Obama to Morse declined by 22,000, while turnout for the recall was only 10,000 votes lower than it had been for Romney the year before. That happened despite the fact that recall opponents raised more than five times as much money as recall supporters.
The Democratic loss may be specific to the gun control issue and to those districts. In Pueblo and Colorado Springs, the Democratic vote is heavily working class and Latino, and those voters may not rally to the cause of gun control as readily as educated upper middle class progressives. Efforts to recall two other Democratic gun control supporters in Colorado failed when their constituents could not get enough voters to sign recall petitions.
While the Colorado recalls may have been highly localized events, the broader implications are unavoidable. Politicians all over the country will take the Colorado recalls as a warning of what could happen to them if they cross the gun lobby. Democratic voters are not nearly as energized by gun control as gun owners and gun activists are.
The vote in the New York Democratic mayoral primary was a clear victory for the New America. Bill de Blasio was propelled in just a few weeks from obscurity to victory by two factors: his willingness to attack Mayor Michael Bloomberg's policies and his embodiment of the New America's core values of diversity and inclusion. De Blasio got more votes than the other four Democrats combined among voters who objected to the "stop and frisk" policing supported by Mayor Bloomberg (6 in 10 Democrats objected).
De Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American and came out as a lesbian 12 years before she fell in love with and married de Blasio. The breakthrough for de Blasio may have been when he released a commercial featuring their young biracial son paying tribute to his father. On primary day, de Blasio split the black vote with Bill Thompson, an African-American candidate. De Blasio carried women and gay voters against Christine Quinn, a lesbian contender. He also carried Catholic, Jewish and Latino voters. De Blasio is an Italian-American man with Jewish political values whose family incorporates racial and sexual minorities. He is a multicultural coalition all by himself.
De Blasio is likely to become New York's first Democratic mayor in 20 years. He will be a leading figure on the left and an advocate for urban America.
Who will lead the New America after Obama? Possibly Hillary Clinton. The breakthrough of electing the first woman president would probably trump any concern Democrats might have about returning to the past. When Clinton addressed the Syria issue last week, the former secretary of state condemned the Assad government but did not specifically endorse a military strike.
Some progressives argue that their movement does not really need a leader. "In today's fragmented, social-media-driven world, our grass-roots approach gets the advantage," blogger Markos Moulitsas told Politico. It certainly did in the Syria debate and in the New York primary.