Back in 1901, Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley said, “The Dimmycratic Party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itsilf.” Is that happening again now? You might think so, given the talk about a populist revolt on the left.
But Democrats are in fact remarkably united on most issues. They agree on everything from increasing the minimum wage, to extending unemployment benefits to raising the debt ceiling.
Yes, there are divisions emerging over trade and energy. But it’s not anything like the bitter confrontations we used to see among Democrats over civil rights and the Vietnam War. It’s also not anything like the bitter civil war that’s broken out in the Republican Party. No one is threatening to walk out.
The 1960s was a time of open warfare among Democrats. The party establishment faced rebellions on two fronts. The George Wallace voters on the right, who objected to the party’s embrace of civil rights; and antiwar voters on the left, who objected to the Johnson administration’s war in Vietnam. The Wallace voters left the party. The antiwar movement left blood on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but it ultimately persuaded the party to its point of view.
Today’s Democratic Party is smaller (Southern whites are largely gone) but far more coherent.
What was amazing was that Democrats held together to pass the new healthcare law without a single Republican vote during President Barack Obama’s first two years in office. Democrats couldn’t do that during President Bill Clinton’s first two years when they had similar majorities in Congress.
Why the sudden surge of Democratic Party discipline in 2009 and 2010? The answer: Republicans. The Tea Party’s radicalization of the GOP ended up splitting Republicans and unifying Democrats.
The issues dividing Democrats today are over interests rather than values. One issue is whether the administration should approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Environmental activists are trying to turn the debate into a showdown. The president of Friends of the Earth warned in The Washington Post that, “If [the president] approves this pipeline, he reduces what little credibility he has to the rest of the world in showing that the U.S. is going to be a climate-change leader.”
The environmental impact report just released by the State Department is far less dire: “Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including [the pipeline], is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.”
An energy consultant told The New York Times, “At the end of the day, there’s a consensus among most energy experts that the oil will get shipped to market no matter what.”
The Obama administration is attempting to reduce this to a debate over interests: Which approach will risk the least harm to the environment? A Pew poll taken in September showed nearly two thirds of the public in favor of the pipeline — but Democrats were more closely split with 51 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed.
Polling on trade is far more negative. Obama wants Congress to give him “fast-track authority” to speed new free trade agreements through the approval process without amendment. A poll this month by Hart Research and Chesapeake Beach Consulting shows the public opposed to fast-track, 62 to 28 percent. But guess what? Democrats are narrowly in favor (52 to 35 percent), while Republicans — normally strong supporters of free trade — are solidly against (87 to 8 percent). A question asking people whether they favor “giving the president fast-track authority” elicits views that are more about Obama than about trade.
The debate among Democrats over protectionism is not new. Economists insist that it’s a debate over economic interests: free trade creates jobs in export industries and lowers prices for consumers, but at the same time it endangers the jobs of low-wage workers who have to compete with poorly paid foreign workers.
To most Americans, however, trade is not an economic issue. It’s a moral issue. It’s viewed as wrong for some U.S. workers and consumers to benefit by putting others out of work.
Trade has always divided Democrats into pro-business and pro-labor factions. Look at the vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which President Bill Clinton submitted to Congress in 1993. House Democrats voted no on NAFTA, 156 to 102. Democratic senators were closely divided — 27 yea and 28 nay. Clinton got NAFTA only because of Republican support.
Given Democrats’ hostility to free trade and Republicans’ hostility to Obama, it will be difficult for Obama to pull off the same trick. Fast-track authority seems to be dead — at least until after the midterm election.
“I’m against fast-track,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “Everyone would be well advised just not to push this right now.”
Democrats may be split on energy and trade, but there is no indication that liberals will stage a full-scale insurgency like the Tea Party did. There’s a reason why liberals are less of a threat to party unity. In 2013, according to Gallup, only 23 percent of Americans considered themselves liberal. Democrats accounted for 31 percent.
Over the last 20 years, the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal ranged between 16 and 23 percent. Those who identified as Democrat ranged between 31 and 36 percent. The message? Democrats outnumber liberals. It is to liberals’ advantage to remain loyal to the party.
At the same time, self-described conservatives outnumbered Republicans 38 to 25 percent last year. Over the past 20 years, conservatives have ranged between 36 and 40 percent of the electorate. Republicans have ranged between 25 and 34 percent. That gives conservatives a strong incentive to go their own way.
Almost all the Republican candidates lining up to run in 2016 come out of the conservative insurgency. Until recently, the establishment favorite was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But Christie is now damaged goods. Establishment Republicans are desperately looking for a new champion to save the party. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker? Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush? Somebody? Anybody?
If Republicans win control of the Senate this year, the pressure on Hillary Clinton to run will be irresistible. Because if Democrats don’t hold the White House, the legacies of the last two Democratic presidents will be obliterated. And Hillary Clinton was part of both administrations.
Polls of Democrats show Clinton getting nearly unanimous support for the 2016 nomination. Liberal Democrats back her by 74 percent, according to this month’s Washington Post-ABC News poll. Moderate and conservative Democrats are close, with73 percent for Clinton. College-educated Democrats back her 74 percent and non-college Democrats support her 73 percent.
That doesn’t sound like a party about to come apart.
(Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way. )
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