The Democratic Party's Quandary
October 21, 2002
by Ronald Radosh
This could have been the Democrats’ election year. But it almost certainly won’t be. To understand why, one need only look to Vice President Gore’s recent speech in San Francisco, and contrast it with Congress’s approval of the president’s use of force resolution. These two incidents put into sharp relief the quandary in which the Democratic Party now finds itself.
In his speech, Mr. Gore pulled himself away from the mainstream political pack by delivering an antiwar diatribe to a group of San Francisco Democrats, representing the furthest-left wing of the party. This from the titular leader of the party and its most likely 2004 presidential candidate. The departure led one of Mr. Gore’s biggest supporters, The New Republic, to proclaim itself “speechless” in its lead editorial. According to the magazine, Mr. Gore in the past had “consistently battled the irresponsibility and incoherence of foreign affairs that plagued the Democratic Party.” Now, however, his speech was simply a “political broadside” motivated by “bitterness” at having lost the election to President Bush.
The irony is that Mr. Gore’s tilt to the party’s Left comes just as two of the most astute political observers at our nation’s capital, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, present a compelling case based on demographic evidence for what they call in their new book of the same title, The Emerging Democratic Majority. The authors note that the Democratic Party, once representing a working-class majority and intellectual elements that propelled it toward the Left, now embraces a “progressive centrism” that supports economic growth and a free market, but which also favors regulation and the right to abortion. These centrist positions, the authors argue, are having the effect of eroding traditional Republican areas of support and making the Democrats the party of choice for urban professionals, working women, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics.
Mr. Gore must have missed all of this. Seemingly, he does not appreciate that the greatest political achievement of his former boss, President Clinton, was moving the Democrats back toward the political center and away from the disastrous old liberal and New Left tone that created so much dissonance in the party after George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 presidential bid. If the party keeps moving in the direction it has been, Messrs. Judis and Teixeira argue, it could be on the verge of a political realignment—one that would bring groups that deserted the party in the 1970s and ’80s, including the so-called Reagan Democrats, back into the fold.
Why then, are the Democrats at present in such a state of disarray, and why is it beginning to look like the Democratic Party will be in deep trouble in November?
It doesn’t help the party that in the House vote of October 10, 126 of 208 Democrats voted against the resolution giving the president power to make war against Iraq, and in the Senate 22 Democrats and one independent voted in opposition. It was certainly better than the lack of support given by Democrats to the first President Bush before the Gulf War, when three-quarters of congressional Democrats voted in opposition to troop deployment, but still very revealing to moderate voters of the deep fissures existing within Democratic ranks.
By straddling the fence—supporting the president, but not strongly or with a united front—the Democrats have managed to please no one. So, do Democrats take the Gore path of pandering to the unrepresentative liberal base, or do they go for mainstream support, back the president, and gain centrist votes?
Currently, activists aren’t sending money because they’re angry about Democrats like Richard Gephardt and Senator Daschle cooperating with the president. A Washington Post poll showed that while 34 percent of Americans oppose war with Iraq, 76 percent of those who oppose war are among the Democratic Party’s base: liberals, blacks, and women. As one activist told the press: “The Democratic message is ‘We support Bush in the War on Terrorism.’ That is not going to turn out anybody.”
At the same time, the antics of Reps. David Bonior and Jim McDermott in Iraq have compounded the Democrat’s problems. Most Americans accept the right to dissent, but think that the congressmen crossed the line. When speaking in Saddam Hussein’s stronghold, they asked that Americans trust the Iraqi dictator to welcome unfettered inspection, and be skeptical of President Bush whom, they argued, ought not be trusted.
The position of Messrs. Bonior and McDermott is one held at the party’s leftmost fringes. Their stance, in effect, is the McGovernism of 1972 brought up to the twenty-first century. Messrs. Judis and Teixeira point out that President Carter’s foreign policy weaknesses produced serious doubts among potential and likely Democratic voters who “had begun to harbor doubts in the early 1970s about the Democrats’ willingness to stand up to Soviet Communism and Third World radicalism.” These voters had started returning to Democratic ranks in the 1990s.
With the nation on the eve of war with Iraq, and Republicans again appearing as the party most likely to demand action to protect our national security, the Democrats seem set once again to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
This article appeared in the New York Sun on October 15, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."