Ron Radosh

It's Not Your Father's Democratic Party: How the Party has Changed for the Worse since Clinton's era

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, one thing is clear: it’s not your father’s Democratic Party any longer. Readers of Jay Cost’s important new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, already know this. Cost gives us the analysis that shows the slow but unmistakable transformation of the once broad-based political party to a machine operation controlled by the new elites and the public sector unions, beholden not to the American public but to the narrow interests that dominate its machinery. As the publisher’s description of the book says:

No longer able to govern for the vast majority of the country, the Democratic party simply taxes Middle America to pay off its clients while hiding its true nature behind a smoke screen of idealistic rhetoric. Thus, the Obama health care, stimulus, and auto bailout health care bill were created not to help all Americans but to secure contributions and votes. Average Americans need to see that whatever the Democratic party claims it is doing for the country, it is in fact governing simply for its base.

Use that description as the guide when you watch the convention the next three days. Cost making this argument is one thing — after all, he writes for the Weekly Standard, and some will thus write him off as a conservative and simply ignore what he has to say. But Newsweek making the same argument is another thing. Following Niall Ferguson’s much-discussed cover story of two weeks ago, Tina Brown has done it again. This week features an analysis of Bill Clinton’s apparent reconciliation with Barack Obama, and the meaning of his featured prime-time speech at the DNC.

Written by Peter J. Boyer, the article is not really about Clinton, but rather is a sharp analysis of how the Democrats have changed since the era of Clinton’s presidency. Clinton may have accepted the difficult task of trying to save the Obama presidency and speaking on the president’s behalf to satisfy his large ego, but everyone knows the truth. Obama and Clinton have had what Boyer calls an “uneasy” relationship since 2008, due to the bitter primary fight with his wife that “inflicted real wounds” that in fact have not healed.

More to the point is that the party and the politics Bill Clinton represents are far removed from our current president’s lurch to the left. After Republicans gained strength and Clinton saw the handwriting on the wall, he moved to the center, reflecting his own origins as head of the moderate and centrist so-called New Democrats. They were aligned with the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council, which sought to reflect the concerns of blue-dog Democrats, centrists, and the business community. When Clinton won re-election, he worked with Republicans to institute real welfare reform, and he abandoned his ill-conceived experiment in universal health care. Earlier, he got NAFTA passed despite union opposition and with Republican votes.

So while Clinton will speak in Charlotte, as Boyer writes, “that brand of centrist New Democrat politics that helped make him the first president of his party to win reelection since FDR … will be mostly missing. Conservative and centrist Democrats, so critical to Clinton’s efforts to reform welfare, balance the budget, and erase the image of the party as being reflexively anti-business, have nearly vanished.”

Today’s Democratic Party is an institution beholden to its public-sector union clients, academics, Eastern elites, and the crony capitalists who give it funding and benefit from the White House’s largesse when it gives them contracts — such as those for the failed energy companies like Solyndra.

Its base is the anti-business and anti-war Left, symbolized by the likely-to-fail campaign for Senate in Massachusetts waged by Elizabeth Warren. Hers, like that of the president, is that of a party that has taken “an ever-more-stridently leftward turn.” Gone is the emphasis of the DLC for private-sector growth, government efficiency, personal responsibility, and what Boyer writes is “an affirmation of mainstream values.” And one should add that also gone is a tough foreign policy against very real enemies, replaced by Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy. This has left the U.S. without influence to stop the slaughter in Syria, to defend Israel from ever growing attacks, and, most importantly, to force Iran to stop preparing the enrichment of uranium.

Boyer highlights the very real differences:

Obama’s presidency has seemed, in key regards, a repudiation of the New Democrat idea. Clinton Democrats embraced business; Obama attacked private equity. A New Democrat would have championed the Keystone XL Pipeline; Obama, yielding to environmentalists, has resisted it. Although Obama campaigned in coal country in 2008 as a friend of the industry (and of all those blue-collar jobs associated with it), his Environmental Protection Agency has established regulations so severe that one administration official admitted, “if you want to build a coal plant you got a big problem.” Many of the workers affected by such policies are swing-state voters, who are also keenly sensitive to values issues. Obama’s health-care mandates on contraception may help him with single women and urban voters, but it might hurt him among Catholics in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act; Obama stopped enforcing it, and then declared himself a supporter of gay marriage — the day after North Carolinians voted a traditional definition of marriage into the state’s constitution.

Pollster Doug Schoen says Obama has “substituted class warfare for Clintonism.”

“I think the New Democrat movement can be saved,” says Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council. “We do go through cycles. But it would have been a lot better if we had had a second New Democrat president to cement it.”

From, speaking to Boyer, ties the change to those he calls the “cultural liberals,” reflected in the press, academia, New York’s Upper West Side and Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and, of course, most of the film academy and big Hollywood boosters of Obama like George Clooney. The rest of the party’s base is made up of those who get government checks and those in the business community who get what From calls “corporate welfare.” In other words, the party has become “the party of elites and dependents.”

Given this reality, it is not a surprise that during the Republican National Convention — as I said in my previous column — the media did not highlight the speech by Jane Edmonds or even let most people know of the defection to the Republican side of former Alabama Congressman Arthur Davis, the man who seconded Obama’s nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Davis is an African-American who must have taken great pride in the symbolic importance of a black man receiving the nomination of one of America’s major political parties. But Davis found that Obama had taken a different path than that which allowed Democrats in the South to gain electoral victories. Rather than trying to get those who had voted for Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan to vote for him, Obama, Davis points out, “was figuring out how to rally the Democratic base around him,” and he never “had to do what Clinton had to do …which was to figure out how to construct some kind of other political case that appealed to conservative-leaning voters.”

The other point made by Boyer, who favorably cites Democratic pollster and analyst Doug Schoen, is that Obama has “substituted class-based politics — resentment of the rich, taxing the rich — for fiscal discipline, and prudence.” That was most validated when the nation saw Obama simply ignore any of the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission. As Davis tellingly says, the Democratic Party is “slipping in the direction of becoming a self-conscious vehicle of the left, that is more concerned about developing a righteous leftist platform than one that has a particular project to govern.”

And yes, Ed Rendell is right in his observation that one of the problems is that while Newt Gingrich could bring along his base and get them to accept compromises and work with Clinton to implement them, the current congressional Republican leadership is stymied because many of the new Tea Party-elected officials owe no loyalty to them, and can’t be budged to accept any suggestions the Boehner-Cantor leadership might suggest that they disapprove of. But, one should note, when Obama had a majority in both houses of Congress, he still could not get his own Democrats to move one inch and to accept any compromise with Republicans. Nancy Pelosi and her followers ran the show, rather than the White House.

So will Clinton turn the day, making those independent and moderate swing voters decide to vote for Obama? Doug Schoen tells Boyer that he doubts it, and sees Clinton’s coming speech as mere “political artifice.” It is meant, Schoen thinks, to “achieve a short-term political result,” and not a “change in philosophy.”

So the reasons Ronald Reagan asserted as to why he became a Republican still stand. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” Reagan said. “It left me.” Now, many Clinton Democrats, reflecting on the four years of Barack Obama and the party he represents, will join Artur Davis and others in making that same statement. The time and moment for the Democrats to change their philosophy has long passed.

For Democrats who really want to move forward, they too have to abandon a liberalism that has become both obsolete and reactionary, and join conservatives, libertarians, and moderates in voting this November for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.