Democrats' Civil War: The Fight Within the Party
Republicans aren’t the only ones tearing their contemporaries apart. As liberal activists slam President Obama and Nancy Pelosi for being too centrist—and moderate Democrats struggle in polls—a movement is under way to expose and dethrone “Democrats in Name Only.”
“I'm going to start provocatively ... I'm disgusted with this president,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero at the America's Future Now! conference of liberal activists in Washington, D.C. this week.
MoveOn.org’s campaign director, Ilyse Hogue, joined the pile-on at the same conference, saying: “No longer can they count on us for a solid Democratic vote. We are getting more sophisticated to understand that not all Democrats are created equal.”
The divisions in the Democratic Party are deepening, less than two years after its galvanizing 2008 victory that left liberals crowing about the prospect of a 40-year majority.
This is not an idle threat. Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln barely survived this week’s runoff election, after MoveOn.org mobilized against her and Big Labor funneled $10 million to defeat the two-term incumbent. Both accused her of centrist sins ranging from opposing the public option in health-care reform to opposing "card check."
We’re all familiar with the factional fights among Republicans, the party purges, and rabid RINO (a.k.a. Republican in Name Only) hunting. What’s gotten far less attention is the still emerging ideological blood-sport of DINO hunting—but it’s a fever that’s catching among the activist class.
After all, Lincoln wasn’t the only Dem in a tough fight with the left this week. Hawkish California Congresswoman Jane Harman was under fire from progressive candidate Mary Winograd in her primary, arguing along the same lines that dispatched Joe Lieberman in 2006. Even Nancy Pelosi found herself heckled by “progressive” protesters at America’s Future Now!, for being insufficiently liberal when it came to health care—a concept that would make many a conservative’s head spin.
The attacks serve as a reminder of the through-the-looking glass political era we’re living in, in which conservatives are convinced that President Obama is a socialist, while liberals call him a corporate sellout. The right trades anecdotes about Obama’s intentional undermining of the War on Terror, while the left accuses him of callously continuing the Bush administration’s War on Terror policies. These narratives are logically incompatible, and yet they’re simultaneously dominating the national debate. All the while, incumbent Democrats decline in the polls.
In the past, the conservative Club for Growth had the market cornered on primary challenges to same-party centrists in swing districts. Last year, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee began playing the same game, raising money to run ads against centrist Blue Dog Democrats in their own districts. “Blue Dog Democrats are wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate America,” said co-founder Adam Green in a press release. “And they will pay a political price back home for putting their corporate contributors ahead of their constituents who want reform.”
While the PCCC was emerging as a power player in Democratic politics, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council—which provided the policy underpinnings of Bill Clinton’s presidency—has been left a hollow shell of its former formidable self.
And while the media seized on last year’s GOP party split that caused Dede Scozzafava and Doug Hoffman to lose a New York congressional seat held by Republicans since Ulysses S. Grant was president, comparatively little attention was given to the Democratic Party split that handed Hawaii’s supposedly safe liberal seat, long held by Obama family friend Neil Abercrombie, to Republican Charles Djou last month.
The divisions in the Democratic Party are deepening, less than two years after its galvanizing 2008 victory that left liberals crowing about the prospect of a 40-year majority. With Republicans essentially stonewalling any hope of bipartisan support for Obama’s policies, the reason the significant Democrat majorities have not materialized into a steady stream of legislative victories is because of these ideological and political divisions within the Democratic caucus itself, largely between big-city liberals and swing-district centrists.
For a dose of perspective, it’s worth remembering that every Democratic president in the last half-century has been accused of being insufficiently radical by the far left. Harry Truman was primaried by former FDR VP Henry Wallace, who rallied the support of socialists and left-wing labor unions on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. JFK was always distrusted by contemporary liberal groups like Americans for Democratic Action, while LBJ was torn apart by the New Left toward the end of his term for Vietnam. Jimmy Carter was called “the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and primaried by Ted Kennedy. Bill Clinton was dismissed as a corporatist, representing “Democrats for the Leisure Class” by the likes of Jesse Jackson when he ran for the presidency.
And by the end of Barack Obama’s first year in office, liberal luminaries like Ed Schultz were calling the president “a corporate sellout,” while Arianna Huffington was asking, “Can you really say this White House is on the side of the American people?” Already, out in the netroots there’s idle talk of primarying Obama in 2012 from the left.
There seems to be an impulse in the far left that is anti-authoritarian to such an extent that they’re uncomfortable with the nonideological responsibilities of actual governance.
One of the last centrist Democrat organizations standing in Washington is Third Way—whose president, Jonathan Cowan, says he sees a positive shift in this week’s Arkansas runoff. “Senator Lincoln’s primary victory—in which she ran as an unabashed third-way, Bill Clinton moderate—requires that the left rethink its long-term political strategy, as it is failing to win over the very voters who make up its present majority, the 45 percent of Americans who identify as moderates,” said Cowan. “Our movement embraced them in 2006 and 2008, and we must do so again this November.”
The arguments being advanced by the left against Obama are the mirror image of those conservatives who argue that the reason Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008 was that they weren’t conservative enough. Both ignore the central fact of American politics: Elections are won by the party that connects with moderates and the middle class.
And while the ideological purges in the Democratic Party are still in amateur hour compared to the GOP, the impulse is similar, and it is growing. The practical need to win elections outside big cities might halt its spread, but that’s far from a safe bet as the midterms approach. The only cold comfort that might be found, at this particular moment, comes in the form of an old quote from a long-gone Main Street liberal era: “I am not a member of any organized political party,” famously proclaimed Will Rogers. “I am a Democrat.”
John Avlon's new book, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.