THE BLOG
02/24/2006 09:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Searching for the Democrats - Blue Clues

It's become the political mystery of our era. Why is the Democratic Party unable to take advantage of the incompetence of the Bush Administration? The answer is that on key issues, Democratic leaders are divided and, therefore, unable to come up with a coherent position. As a result, the public sticks with Bush; they may not agree with him, but at least they understand what he stands for.

Many Democratic loyalists are very upset with what they perceive as chronic ineptness. What they don't get is that they are witnessing the consequences of a backstage fight for the heart of the Democratic Party. Ironically, Iraq, the economy or any other hot issue will not decide this fight; it will come down to values. Which of two sets of values will the Democrats embrace? One set is advocated by the Clintonista wing of the Party that argues that winning is everything, that the ends justify the means. This position takes refuge in tactics that shift as their perception of the mood of the electorate changes. The other morality is advocated by a loose coalition that includes House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid. This position argues that Democratic positions must stem from their values; that the ends do not justify the means when they conflict with historic Democratic values. The former position places great emphasis on polls. The latter emphasizes principle.

This deep division arose in the aftermath of the 2004 Presidential election. Democratic leaders were traumatized by what they saw in the exit polls. Remember that John Kerry won both the Democratic vote (89 percent) and the Moderate vote (49 percent). However, he lost the election because Bush did a better job holding his base (he carried 93% of Republicans). What chilled Dems was their analysis of the vote by ideology: 34 percent of Americans self-identified as Conservatives and they went overwhelmingly to Bush (84 percent). Only 21 percent said they were liberal. The remaining 45 percent said they were moderate (54 percent favored Kerry).

Some Democrats read these results and concluded, "Screw the liberals. We have to get more of the moderate vote." This has led groups within the Party, such as the Clintonista-dominated Democratic Leadership Council, to take what they perceive to be "moderate" positions on key issues. Rather than call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq they argued for "benchmarks for success." They emphasized tactics.

This group has been influenced by the work that Democratic pollsters, such as Stan Greenberg, have done analyzing blue voters in the 2000 and 2004 elections. In The Two Americas Greenberg divides these voters into five groups: "secular warriors," "union families," African-Americans, Hispanics, and "super-educated women." From his perspective, the blues are issues oriented not values oriented. (Greenberg clumps values people into a Republican group he terms, "the faithful.")

Greenberg's perspective had a great influence on certain segments of the Democratic Party. It aligned with the perspective adopted by the Clinton "brain trust," which argued that Democrats were issues-oriented rather than values-oriented. This is reflected in the position on Iraq taken by Senator Hillary Clinton and her representative in the DCCC, Rahm Emanuel; they contend that the Democratic position should be that Iraq is President Bush's problem--he broke it and he should fix it. They maintain that the Dems shouldn't say anything else; particularly they shouldn't advocate a speedy withdrawal, since their polls indicate that many voters aren't comfortable with this. They avoid taking a position based on principle.

The values-based position, advocated by Congressman John Murtha, Nancy Pelosi, and a majority of the House Democratic caucus, says that principle is important--in this instance that our policy in Iraq should not be based upon what spot polls show, but rather what is best at protecting America.

Underlying these competing positions are differing conceptions of who the blues actually are. To gain perspective on the actual composition of the Democratic Party, it's informative to view Dems in terms of their beliefs. Writing in the January Atlantic Monthly, Steven Waldman and John Green identify five "Democratic tribes:" the religious left (12.6 percent), seculars (10.7 percent), black Protestants (9.6 percent), those who are "spiritual but not religious" (5.3 percent) and the non-Christian religious left (4.6 percent)--Jews, Buddhists and Muslims. These account for 43 percent of the electorate. (Full disclosure requires me to acknowledge that as a Quaker I am a member of the "religious left.") In my experience, the "spiritual but not religious" group consists of people raised as Christians who no longer go to church, because they rejected the patriarchical, hierarchical form of their religious tradition; typically they have Christian values.

Taken together, these Democratic "tribes" are twice the size of group that self-identified as "liberal" in the 2004 exit polls. All, except a minority of seculars, have readily identifiable moral values. Thus, the Waldman-Green data suggests another perspective on the Democratic split. This division is not between "liberals" and "moderates," but rather between "secular" (25 percent) and "values-based" Democrats (75 percent).

Looking at Democrats from the standpoint of their beliefs has profound implications for the Party. It implies that the tactics-based wing of the Dems--the Clintonista wing--represents the minority of Democrats. Since many seculars congregate in Washington, DC, this also explains why that aspect of the Party is at odds with values-based loyalists in the rest of the country.

Looking at Democrats from the standpoint of the deeply held values held by the majority suggests that the Party should make substantial changes in its outreach to voters. More about that in the final column in this series.